|About the author: Alan Badmington, a retired police officer (from Wales in the UK), commenced stuttering in childhood. He is an active and highly successful public speaker, winning numerous awards (in competition with fluent speakers), as well as appearing as a finalist in the Association of Speakers Clubs UK national public speaking championships on two occasions. Alan regularly addresses diverse community organisations in an attempt to increase public awareness about stuttering, while his media involvement has further brought the subject to the fore. He has travelled extensively to fulfil speaking engagements on three different continents, including a keynote speech at the 2004 World Congress for People Who Stutter in Australia, where he also won the Oratory Contest. He has addressed SLP students in the USA, as well as undertaking presentations/workshops at NSA/BSA and ASHA conferences/events. His papers, articles and poems have been reproduced in numerous publications and on various international websites/forums. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
I have long advocated the need to increase public awareness about stuttering. Can we really expect others to understand what is happening, or know how to react, when we suddenly block, display secondary behaviours or appear hesitant? In many instances, even members of our own families have little knowledge about the difficulties we encounter.
In 2001, I decided to do something about it. I felt it was time that I accepted greater responsibility for acquainting other people with what it is like to be a person who stutters (PWS). Who better to explain the implications than those who have experienced such issues? As someone who had stuttered since early childhood, I reasoned that I was suitably qualified to undertake such a task.
A few months earlier, I had made a conscious decision to follow a more expansive lifestyle. This change of direction was accompanied by a resolve to eliminate all avoidance strategies and actively seek out opportunities to tread less familiar paths.
I simultaneously adopted a policy of greater openness, in an effort to discourage me from future attempts to conceal the fact that I stuttered. For so many years, I had done everything possible to keep it a secret. I hoped that such transparency would help me to lead a more authentic existence. I wanted to be honest with myself (and with my listeners).
This lifted a substantial weight off my shoulders. I discovered that when other people were aware of my situation, the constant fear (that I might stutter) no longer hovered over my head like the “Sword of Damocles”. Knowing they would not be surprised in the event of this occurring, I ceased avoiding and said whatever I wanted.
Having already sampled the benefits of speaking openly about stuttering (within my own environments), I recognised the potential value of discussing the subject in a much wider public arena.
Programme of talks
I set about devising a plan of action that would enable me to achieve this with maximum effect. I identified several avenues that I might explore, the principal of which being a proposed series of talks within the local community.
Speaking in front of groups had long figured prominently among my list of fears. A catalogue of painful experiences, accumulated throughout my life, had fuelled my belief that I could never successfully perform that task. Before I could consider implementing my plans, I knew that I had to silence the doubting inner voice that had always tried to discourage me from participating in such activities.
I initially prepared for the task by joining the Association of Speakers Clubs, a UK based organisation that has its origins in Toastmasters International. I became accustomed to public speaking – demonstrating that I could fulfil such a role. My presentation (and overall communication) skills were considerably enhanced, together with my self-confidence. My internal critic became less vocal, giving me the green light to continue with the intended community project.
I learned of the existence of numerous organisations that routinely engage speakers. Once I had plucked up the courage, it was simply a question of letting them know of my availability.
Ironically, my initial booking required very little effort on my part. A former police colleague knew of my desire to spread the word about stuttering and suggested to his local Probus Club (a countrywide network comprising professional/business persons) that they might invite me to speak at a future meeting.
I jumped at the opportunity and spoke for an hour, describing how stuttering had affected my life. I told the audience about the intricate ploys that I had once used to conceal my oral struggles (and shield me from embarrassment).
I made reference to my life-long aversion of speaking on the telephone, while also revealing that I had habitually resorted to word substitution.
I explained that such a practice came with a cost. My mind was constantly in turmoil, as I searched for synonyms that I perceived were easier to say. For years, I was oblivious to the fact that avoidance had actually increased my fear, while also ensuring that I rarely used the word(s) of my choice. As a result, my oral exchanges became laden with inferior or inappropriate vocabulary.
I demonstrated the small electronic device (Edinburgh Masker) that had been my “mechanical crutch” for more than 20 years – obliterating the sound of my own voice. Another illustration of the drastic steps I took to keep my head above water.
I touched upon the psychological aspects of stuttering, explaining how repeated exposure to negative experiences may deter us from participating in future speaking situations. This can limit our potential and achievements.
I also shared details of the disappointments, frustration and lost opportunities that blighted my police career.
I was overwhelmed by the degree of interest generated by my talk. You could hear a pin drop as I recounted, in graphic detail, the traumatic struggles I experienced when giving evidence in court. A supervisory officer reported that I was “an embarrassment to all”, resulting in me being withdrawn from operational duties and transferred to an administrative role.
But it was not all doom and gloom. Humour can be a very useful tool with which to convey an important message. My talk was purposely littered with amusing anecdotes. When my listeners laughed, I knew they were more likely to remember the circumstances that created the merriment, thereby strengthening their understanding of the principle(s) I was attempting to explain.
But, I didn’t just tell the audience that I once practised extensive avoidance strategies. I went one step further and shared a few stories, which vividly illustrated that trait.
No-one will ever forget that my fear of saying words (commencing with the letter “S”) heavily influenced my actions when dealing with a drunken individual. Having first encountered the intoxicated and disorderly man in Somerset Street, I assisted him (a short distance) to an adjoining road which had a less-challenging name. Had I arrested him at the original location, I would have experienced considerable difficulties (with my speech) at the subsequent court hearing. 🙂
I further illustrated the implications of avoidance by speaking about the time that I invented a false identity (Adrian Adams) when depositing items at the dry-cleaners. I chose this option because I had convinced myself that I could not say my own name. However, the ruse was cruelly exposed when, unbeknown to me, someone else decided to collect the garments on my behalf. When that person requested the clothing for “Alan Badmington”, there was (of course) no record of any such transaction. As you can imagine – I had to do a great deal of explaining. 🙂
There were numerous other examples that reinforced the audience’s understanding of the desperate measures to which I resorted, in order to avoid stuttering.
However, I should stress that the mirth was NOT directed at persons who stutter (in general) – it was confined solely to the unique experiences of Alan Badmington.
Although I no longer have any hang-ups about speaking in such a vein, I readily acknowledge that some PWS might feel uncomfortable about associating humour with their past oral struggles, particularly when in the company of total strangers.
The manner in which I now react to such experiences contrasts starkly with how I would have responded prior to embarking upon a more self-accepting, open and expansive existence. I recognise that I am, indeed, at a very favourable place in my life.
Since that introductory talk, my speaking engagements have escalated rapidly, as news filtered along the community grapevine. The need for speakers is insatiable. Without virtually any promotion, I have now undertaken several hundred talks.
Upon conclusion of each presentation, I conduct a Question and Answer session. Some enquiries relate to my own story, while others are of a general nature. My listeners also seek guidance as to how they should react in the presence of PWS. Many tell me that they were previously unaware of the extent to which stuttering can impact upon someone’s life. Having acquired a better understanding, they admit that they will now view stuttering in a different light.
I truly believe that the lives of many PWS could be significantly enhanced if more of us are prepared to speak publicly about the subject. However, I fully appreciate that the very nature of stuttering is such that some may well feel reluctant, or unable, to discuss it with others. I sincerely hope that this paper may encourage some to follow my example.
Those who are not yet ready to explore such uncharted waters alone, may gain confidence if accompanied by a relative, friend, member of the speech-language profession – or maybe another PWS? Is there anyone with whom you might wish to share the adventure?
Greater openness about my life-long communication issues has proved invaluable in helping me to overcome previous embarrassment. Revealing my ‘darkest secret’, to all and sundry, has greatly accelerated the desensitization process. My beliefs and perceptions (of what others think about me) are now extremely positive.
In the beginning, I spoke exclusively about stuttering but, as time progressed, I have found it necessary to create additional talks to accommodate the numerous follow-up requests that I receive. Over the years, I have developed an extensive repertoire that embraces subjects unrelated to stuttering. All have one thing in common – they contain a sizeable ingredient of humour. 🙂 Public speaking is now an enjoyable and integral part of my life.
When I first considered the possibility of addressing community groups, I pondered whether a talk about “Stuttering” would be of sufficient interest to hold an audience’s attention for 60 minutes. However, such concerns proved to be completely unfounded. The responses I receive are always extremely positive. There is a genuine interest in the subject. 14 years “down-the-line”, my diary of engagements is still bursting at the seams. 🙂
Interestingly, after learning about how I have successfully dealt with my personal adversity, many members of the audience confide that they are similarly inspired to confront challenges that exist within their own lives. It has been enlightening to discover that there are many common threads affecting persons who stutter and those who don’t. It is important for us to realise that fear, self-doubt and avoidance are not the sole prerogative of PWS.
In addition to addressing community groups, I have spoken about stuttering on TV/radio and in everyday life situations. I have also generated articles in newspapers/magazines and delivered presentations at events staged by the American Speech, Language and Hearing Association. Being invited to address student SLPs (at several US universities) has been particularly heartening. Interaction with the speech-language profession is to our mutual benefit. Our voices need to be heard!
I feel it is unreasonable to expect national/international stuttering organisations to assume sole responsibility for making others aware of the issues faced by PWS. We, too, can play a hugely important part in educating the public.
If we are confronted by articles, opinions or circumstances that we feel are detrimental (or inaccurate), then we need to “speak out” (either orally, or in writing). Whilst accepting that the spoken word may not be an attractive consideration for some, it has been my experience that most of us are more than capable of expressing ourselves, forcibly, via the written word. 🙂
And, finally, if anyone still harbours doubts about our ability to influence the public’s understanding of stuttering, I respectfully invite you to peruse the following feedback that was forthcoming after I addressed a group of serving police officers. The sentiments are representative of many other comments that I regularly receive.
“Alan, having spent one of the most moving afternoons of my life in your company, I would wish to express my gratitude. I have taken time to reflect on your lecture and have found myself pausing and drawing breath on what your daily experiences must have been like. Thank you for the inspiring talk; it has been a privilege to have met you.”
I rest my case. 🙂
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