It's not OK to laugh at someone who stammers

It's not OK to laugh at someone who stammers

When Rhian Binns was laughed at by a barista in Costa when ordering a tea, she decided enough was enough. She tweeted them to highlight the issue, never imagining it would go viral and lead to an invitation to appear on BBC Breakfast. This International Stammering Awareness Day, she urges us all to talk about it.

I’ve stammered all my life and have been in and out of speech therapy. I’ve tried all the different techniques and even made up little tricks myself: tapping my leg (which turned into hitting my leg), clicking my fingers under the table, having a mint in my mouth and switching words. You name it, I’ve tried it. 

Now 27, my stammer isn’t as severe as it was. I think I’ve learnt to accept it more; accept that I talk differently to others and that I’m not going to ‘grow out of it’ as I was always told. Accepting my stammer has made things easier. I’m no longer trying to hide it and talk fluently. I don’t let it define me and I speak openly about my stammer, which really does help. Unfortunately, not everyone is so accepting.

Rhian BinnsI know I speak for many when I say that not a week goes by when I’m not laughed at for my stammer. I’ve gotten used to people looking at me strangely when I first meet them, or when I order food at a restaurant. I shouldn’t have to have thick skin and brush off comments or sniggering, and I recently finally took a stand and said it’s not OK to laugh at someone who stammers. 

Taking a stand

I was catching a train from Wakefield. I had 10 minutes until my train arrived so I called into Costa to grab a tea to go. It was 8.15am — as you can imagine, it was very busy. Ordering anything with a stammer is a big deal for me, it never gets any easier. I’m stood in the queue and I’m counting down the people in front of me until it’s my turn to speak; four people, three people, two… one… oh no, it’s my turn and I block on my words. What made this experience even more embarrassing than normal is that when I got stuck, the barista started to laugh. Mortified, I took a deep breath and tried again, and the barista continued to laugh. I finally managed to say that simple phrase ‘a cup of tea’, received my order and got out as quickly as I possibly could without drawing more attention to myself. 

I thought, I can’t continue to let this be the ‘norm’ for people who stammer.

I was sat on the train, running away with my thoughts. I was angry, upset and embarrassed about what just happened. I thought to myself I could’ve handled that situation better. I shouldn’t have run away, I should have told her that it’s not OK to laugh at someone who stammers. Annoyed that I didn’t say anything, I thought, I can’t continue to let this be the ‘norm’ for people who stammer. I need to bring this to Costa’s attention. So I wrote them a tweet saying that customer service should include how to deal with customers who stammer.

Raising awareness

My tweet started to get lots of likes and retweets and then journalists started getting in touch. I never imagined such an incredible response, I just wanted to bring it to Costa’s attention. Costa offered me 800 points for my ‘inconvenience’ — that’s £8 — not what I wanted. I wanted staff to be trained. But £8, is it worth that?

BBC Look North asked if I’d like to do a social media film on what happened and what advice I could give to the public to help someone who stammers. I also went on their evening news to share my story and campaign for change, and for companies to talk about stammering with their staff. 

A few days later, I was asked to go on BBC Breakfast with Jane Powell, BSA’s CEO, to raise awareness (I know, someone who stammers on TV so much – eek!). We discussed stammering being seen as ‘funny’, that it isn’t talked about much; it’s a taboo subject and that how to act around someone who stammers should be common knowledge, courtesy and part of staff training. We all know how to act around someone who’s blind or in a wheelchair, so why not someone who stammers?

Rhian on BBC Breakfast
Rhian (second from left) on BBC Breakfast, with BSA's Jane Powell and presenters Ben Thompson and Babita Sharma.)

We need to talk about stammering

The comments, feedback and support from my recent interviews was incredible. It was great to see not only people who stammer commenting, but parents of children who stammer and the general public saying thank you for raising awareness of this behaviour. It happens far too often and we need to speak up; it needs addressing. It’s fuelled a passion in me to make a change and to start talking openly about stammering. 

I still get tweets and messages from people telling me about their similar experiences. It’s not OK that we’re still getting laughed. Together, we need to talk about our experiences and make people aware of what we regularly have to go through. 

It’s fuelled a passion in me to make a change and to start talking openly about stammering. 

I hope that talking about my experience has raised awareness not only to individuals, but companies, schools and colleges; I hope it’s talked about and that they know how to help someone who stammers. I would love to go back to Costa and talk about my experience, how it made me feel and what they could have done differently. 

So, this International Stammering Awareness Day, why not talk about your stammer to a friend, a family member or a colleague. Share how it makes you feel, your experiences and what you find most challenging. The more we talk about stammering, the less of a taboo subject it becomes.

Let’s keep fighting for stammers to be accepted and continue talking about our stammers. Please remember, it’s OK to stammer.

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