We are many, but scattered and poorly represented

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Vasiliki Tsiligianni talks about growing up with a stammer, navigating the job market and the need for inclusive employment.

Stammering has always been a part of my life that I wanted to shy away from. This was driven by the shame and pervasive stigma associated with it perceived as ineptitude unfairly imposed upon me by the judgements of others. In hindsight, in my 40s, I can deduce and rationalise that social etiquette about disability and what is considered politically correct have changed in the last 30 years. It should not be a defining characteristic of who I am or what I can do.

Early years

In my early childhood, speech disfluency manifested as a natural expression of my eagerness to convey the thoughts in my mind. This was repeatedly emphasised by some of those people supporting me like my school teacher, who reframed it from a problem into a mere overflow of ideas.

I spoke early in complete sentences, and fluently. Stammering only entered my life, according to explanations given to me and my family, when I began tackling more complex school subjects. My teacher had appeased with grace any worries that my family had, confirming that I was 'normal', whatever that meant. Suddenly it stopped happening and I had no blocks for at least two years. However, some stressful events at the time brought stammering back to the surface, and this time it came to stay.

My response was: "Well, I might stammer every now and then. Nonetheless, I know what I am talking about. Tomorrow, I might have a day without stuttering, but you will still be a fool!"

At the age of 9, I found myself utterly disoriented by my stammer. Speech therapy wasn't on the table as my parents believed it would resolve itself, as it had done two years earlier. Enduring childhood bullying, I faced insults that compounded the embarrassment my family felt about my stammer. Every attempt at school plays or public speaking brought a reminder of my speech 'impediment', escalating my stress levels and deepening the sense of shame. Oddly, the shame never influenced my choices; it only tainted the experience.

Instances of hurtful behaviour amplified this struggle, diverting attention to my stammer. Whether fuelled by childish antics or uninformed ignorance of how to interact with people with speech disabilities, such incidents left lasting impressions. I vividly recall a classmate attempting to quash my enthusiasm for a school play, resorting to name-calling and mocking my blocks. That revealed to me a need for greater awareness and empathy in addressing speech-related challenges. My response was: "Well, I might stammer every now and then. Nonetheless, I know what I am talking about. Tomorrow, I might have a day without stuttering, but you will still be a fool!”

You see, during childhood and adolescence I didn't know what 'trauma' meant, even though I was experiencing it (especially 30 years ago). I learnt, as a person who stammers, to build my defences, even without speech therapy. I had to think twice as fast as the average person to accommodate my blocks so that I had replacement words or tricks to overcome them, and a thick skin to take peoples' ignorance on the chin. Nobody cares about social etiquette at that age, and it is that period of time that makes some of us hide. I taught myself to hide, mask my blocks, and treat people with dishonesty  when they were looking at me, thinking that I might be experiencing a stroke while talking. This completely undermined my effort to make them listen to what I was saying and NOT how I was saying it.

Recognising the futility of concealing my stammer after four decades, I've chosen to be open. 

Experience & inclusion

With over 15 years of extensive experience in customer-facing roles spanning various industries and armed with two university degrees in communication-intensive disciplines, I have honed my ability to engage with diverse audiences. Throughout my professional journey, I grappled with the challenge of stammering, oscillating between concealing it and addressing it with transparency and humour, especially during high-stress periods. Despite my genuine intentions, I discovered that my attempts sometimes inadvertently hindered my communication goals. 

Now, as I navigate the job market, I've observed how job descriptions broadly highlight the importance of communication skills, using superlatives like 'excellent' and 'unparalleled'. What does that even mean, and by whose standards? This raises pertinent questions for people who stammer in the 21st century, where the rhetoric of diversity and inclusion often leaves them overlooked.

Modern-day living is marked by pervasive stress and anxiety. Disfluency can affect anyone irrespective of whether they stammer or not. Recognising the futility of concealing my stammer after four decades, I've chosen to be open. Breaking the silence and advocating for awareness, I've found support through organisations like STAMMA and connecting with fellow professionals facing similar challenges. This journey has equipped me with tools to enhance my chances of a fair interview.

Despite our stammering issues, people like me remain scattered and inadequately represented in today's human resource landscape. It's imperative for diversity and inclusion initiatives to extend their embrace to include stammering, mirroring the progress made for other forms of disabilities and differences such as dyslexia.

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Tayo & Bhupinder
A speaker on stage at STAMMAFest 2023

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