8th June 2021
After shop workers laughed at her stammer, Sandra Kelly decided enough was enough. Here she explains how putting herself up for radio interviews to educate people was the best decision she ever made.
What is a stammer?
It can be the thing that keeps you awake each night worrying over what speaking experiences you will encounter the following day. It's the dentist who mistook my stammer for me having a stroke. The barman who asked me to leave the pub, thinking I had too much to drink.
A stammer is the coffee shop worker who wrote my name on the cup exactly how I said it ('Ssssandra'). It's the hairdresser who hung up the phone on me before I could finish saying my name. It's the shop worker who offered me a pen and paper to write it down. It is the event security guard I stopped to ask for directions to the showers, who responded with "Are you looking for the sh-sh-sh-sh-showers?" and burst out laughing with his colleagues. It was the girls at school who pushed me and mocked me because I was 'different'. It is the wish that I had when I was 15 to learn sign language so that I would never have to speak again.
All of the above is what my stammer means to me.
I felt that my stammer was all that I was.
At times I feel like my stammer has tortured my soul since the age of 3. Although I was very academically bright in school, I was always labelled as a 'slow learner' because of it. I became the master of tricks and avoidance and skipped the class that I knew I would be asked to read aloud in. I felt that my stammer was all that I was. I took a job at a takeaway restaurant after school because I felt that was all I was good enough for.
I carried around a notebook and pen in my handbag which I used to write down things like asking for a train ticket. Coming home from nights out was a disaster because I could not say my address; I used to get the taxi to drop me off at a different address, sometimes 2 miles away from my house, and walk the rest of the way.
Putting myself forward
By the time I got to 21, I felt that I was 'doomed'. I decided to do the McGuire Programme, which gave me the confidence to get a good job, use the telephone and speak to people. I kept this up for many years although not so much these days.
Over the years, I've had so many experiences where staff in shops and restaurants laughed in my face when I was struggling to speak. They treated me so badly, like a second class citizen. Last year I reached rock bottom with my confidence. Each time I was laughed at I used to take it very badly, so I decided to do something about it. I got up, dusted myself off, and went out into the world with what I have and let my voice be heard. I put myself forward for radio interviews to raise awareness of stammering and educate people a bit on how laughing in a person's face is unacceptable. We wouldn't laugh at a person in a wheelchair, so why would we laugh at someone who stammers?
Each time I go on the radio I think about King George VI's radio announcements and say to myself: "If a stammer is good enough for the King of Britain, then it's good enough for me"
I have now been on almost every radio station in Ireland talking about it, and all of my interviews have had a great response from people and increased my confidence greatly. (Listen to some of the interviews using the links at the bottom of the page.) I chose the radio over magazine articles because I wanted to challenge myself in pressurised speaking situations. The film The King's Speech helps me here. Each time I go on the radio I think about King George VI's radio announcements and say to myself: "If a stammer is good enough for the King of Britain, then it's good enough for me".
After watching that film in 2013, I wrote to Queen Elizabeth to tell her how her father’s story had inspired me. I received a reply from her which is now one of my most treasured possessions (see the picture below).
At 37, I now work as a clerical officer with the HSE mental health service. Every day is a challenge with my speech but I have learned to start enjoying it.
I spent the majority of my life seeing my stammer as a demon that was 'chipping away at my soul', but from being brave and having courage, I have changed my way of thinking. I now see it as a positive. It has made me a great listener and so understanding of other peoples' challenges. I feel that I don't have to 'help myself' speak better because my stammer is part of who I am, and why should I have to change that? My favourite thing to do now is to look fear in the face at any given opportunity, such as going on the radio. I say to myself every morning, "Have courage and be kind," and I bring that into my everyday life.
I've never felt so proud of who I am and all that I have achieved. I get a great feeling knowing that I am helping other people who stammer by going on the radio and educating others. It's not very often that you hear a person with a stammer speaking on live radio!
From Joe Biden to George VI, there are so many amazing people in this world who never let their stammer define who and what they became. You have to believe in yourself. Look hard enough and you will find the inspiration to become one of those amazing people.
The McGuire Programme is one of a number of courses for people who stammer. Read more about the range of options on our Therapy & Courses section.