We have the right to be heard, fluent or not
5th January 2023
Susan Mayer tells us about learning to openly acknowledge her stammer and what helped along the way, and wonders if she feels proud of it.
Let's start with the good stuff. Recently I gave an hour-long PowerPoint presentation on 'Joseph Paxton and the Crystal Place' to my British History Group. A storm of applause, many personal congratulations and an invitation to come and speak at a gardening club were the result — not bad after being 70 years a stammerer. Yes, people noticed some hesitation and stumbles but they thought it made no impact on the delivery of the talk.
What got me to this happy place? A combination of things but first, the misery memoir bit...
I struggled with my stammer to the point of selective mutism until I was 16. These were the unenlightened days of the 1950s and 60s where the 'odd' children were ignored or put on a separate table at school. Speech therapy was scarce and pointless, I felt; in my case it could not address the nightmare of the outside world.
Stammerers with careers to pursue might find the techniques employed in public speaking very useful.
Like so many of us I was in terror whenever I had to speak in public, ask for things in shops or whenever the phone rang. I suffered the usual feelings of rejection and worthlessness, which reinforced the stammer, all the time knowing that I was as capable and attractive as anyone else.
These feelings gradually disappeared with academic achievement, community involvement, social acceptance, marriage and motherhood. My stammer was sometimes a handicap but it did not prevent me from enjoying any of these situations, but it was a long haul. The final solidification to my confidence is that at my age (76yrs) there is no-one or no public situation that I fear.
For those of you who don't want to wait that long, what undoubtedly helped was attending a Speakers Club for many years, not really with the idea of managing my stammer but as a safe place where I could stand behind a lectern and 'pretend to be someone else'. What a revelation and a release! Stammerers with careers to pursue might find the techniques employed in public speaking very useful. I also learned to smile at people before I spoke and to be clear, concise and enthusiastic about what I wanted to say.
Pride or acknowledgement?
I don't understand when people say they are a stammerer and proud of it. I squint (yes, that too) but I'm not proud of it. The eye defect is none of my doing, any more than the speech impediment is. I am proud of the fact that I have gained 90% fluency which gives me joy and does not make other people uncomfortable — the other 10% we can all live with as nobody's perfect…
I don't understand when people say they are a stammerer and proud of it.
I discovered STAMMA only a few years ago and was amazed at how many of us are still struggling out there despite the available support — denoted by a cloud of acronyms unknown to me. At first I did not want to be labelled as a stammerer; my miserable past was far behind me and I no longer considered my stammer to be relevant in my life. However, the organisation did encourage me to openly acknowledge my stammer. In a public situation I now tell people I stammer but that if I get stuck they should just talk among themselves for a bit and we'll be fine. This normally raises a laugh and sets everyone at their ease and I have found that this helps me enormously.
Maybe 'acknowledgement' is a more accurate term than being 'proud' of stammering? Even 'acceptance', i.e. 'this is me and I happen to have a stammer'?
Please take advantage of anything STAMMA has to offer. Don't suffer alone. Read how other people have coped. Everyone's experiences are different especially in this modern world but someone's solution may resolve what you see is your particular problem. And how we deal with these problems is a personal matter according to temperament and situation. All I know is that we have the right to be heard whether fluent or not.
To find a Speakers Club (a club where you can practise and develop public speaking skills) in your area, see the Association of Speakers Clubs website. Toastmasters is another organisation that runs public speaking groups across the UK.