Stammering Pride — back to the future?

A man smiling for the camera, with an inset of a crystal ball

Tim Shanks tells us what he hopes the future will look like for people who stammer.

There's a saying that if you remember the 1960s you weren't there. But growing up as someone who stammers in that decade, I remember it vividly. 

I mainly remember hiding in a book cupboard at school to avoid reading out in English. Or pretending to be ill at college so that I could avoid oral presentations in tutorials. And lastly, breaking down crying with the careers officer, thinking that I would never have a career because of my stammer. He asked me why I was crying and I could not get the words out. I had to write down on a piece of paper "I cannot speak".

Meanwhile, at the same time in California, Professor of Psychology Joseph Sheehan was theorising that a person's 'problem' with stammering was primarily down to their attitudes and feelings towards it, not because of their stammered speech. He thought the person has to be educated and learn to accept themselves as someone who stammers, which would help them deal with any negative emotion and therefore stammer with no struggle or tension. He said a less important by-product of this would be that they'd stammer less. Another theorist, Charles Van Riper, was advocating to stammer more fluently — fluently being the operative word.

There's a saying that if you remember the 1960s you weren't there. But growing up as someone who stammers in that decade, I remember it vividly.

However, society in America in the early 60s was socially regressive — misogyny was the norm, racial discrimination was rife and disability discrimination wasn't against the law. Homosexuality was illegal back then too. The Gay Pride movement was instrumental in changing this through four decades of activism. In 1973, in the U.S. they succeeded in getting homosexuality declassified as a mental illness. Amazingly this was brought about by a gay psychiatrist in disguise addressing a national convention on the issue!

Society started to change for the better in the West in the 1960s and progressive ideas started to flourish — feminism, racial tolerance, gay pride and anti-disability discrimination. More recently, the fight for tolerance of different gender identity is now making headlines.

Over 50 years later does this remind you of anything? Yes — the recent emergence of Stammering Pride and its activists! They accept their stammer and aim to help society accept it too. They understand there are ignorant, cruel and unkind people who may mock or reject you. They will probably never go away but I personally believe they are in a minority.

A world that made space for stammering

So, looking into my crystal ball into the 2060s perhaps, what would a world that made space for stammering look like?

In that world, stammering would be a descriptive non-judgemental word. As STAMMA says, it would be just 'how some people talk'.

There would be no need for a negative word like dysfluency. Stammering would not be a dysfluency. Dysfluency is a medical word — with the prefix 'dys' defining stammering as bad or ill. It regards stammering as impaired, abnormal and difficult speech. Something that needs treating and changing with speech therapy. It is the medicalisation of our speech that leads us into the therapeutic mazes of the speech clinic.

As a person who stammers, I want a different society in the future to the one I grew up in.

In 2060, the word disability would not be used to describe stammering. People who stammer would be able to take part in society. There would be a stammering newsreader.

We will move away from speech and language therapy and towards treating the person, not the stammer. Teaching acceptance and non-avoidance.

There would be no need to have an aid for fluency. Open stammerers would just take longer to say things, with no fear, shame or stigma.

There will be a kinder, less judgemental, less competitive society — one that makes time for people who stammer. In this utopia the best thing for the listener to do for a person who stammers is to not mind that they stammer, as STAMMA rightly declares in their Media Guidelines (endorsed by the Royal College of Speech & Language Therapists).

Not minding that you stammer would apply to the person who stammers as well — as first proposed by eminent American speech pathologist Oliver Bloodstein over 50 years ago now.

As a person who stammers, I want a different society in the future to the one I grew up in. I want a revolution for the 2060s! Stammering Pride, as promoted by Patrick Campbell, Sam Simpson and others, has taken root and sprouted in the UK. The 'open stammering' espoused by therapist Vivian Sisskin, which she talks about in this YouTube video (largely based on the avoidance reduction of Joseph Sheehan) in the U.S. is alive and kicking. Back to the future?

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Read more Your Voice articles.

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Tayo & Bhupinder
A speaker on stage at STAMMAFest 2023

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