Growing through 50 Million Voices – Iain Wilkie, Helen Carpenter

About the Authors:

Iain Wilkie is an executive coach who stutters and the founder of PathMaker Consulting.  He is a former senior partner and UK leadership team member at global professional services firm EY.

Iain is a recognised leader in promoting disability employment. He founded 50 Million Voices, the EY Stammering Network, and co-founded the UK’s Employers Stammering Network. He is also a Trustee of the UK’s Business Disability Forum and an adviser to the UK government on improving disability employment.

Helen Carpenter. Before working at the British Stammering Association (2015-18) on employment, I’d never given stuttering much thought.What I’ve since discovered has been a revelation. People tend not to talk about stuttering, but we can all play a part in changing that.

I have a degree in modern languages and I’m also a qualified librarian. I’ve a strong track-record in the not-for-profit sector, often leading programmes or new initiatives, in roles concerned with people, places and identity. I see myself as a catalyst and connection-maker, influencing positive change. I’m a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and was awarded an MBE in 2008, after co-ordinating a national programme connecting public libraries and refugees. As well as working on 50 Million Voices, I’m currently co-running an initiative bringing people together to explore architecture, environment and social history in London’s fringes.

Globally an estimated 50 million people of working age stutter – every one of us with a voice – that’s 50 million voices.  However, widespread bias means that across the world many millions of people who stutter are either unemployed or in jobs which are well below our potential.

Employers often mistakenly equate verbal dysfluency with low competence, whereas experience shows that, given the right environment, people who stutter can become highly successful leaders and truly authentic communicators. For example, Joe Biden (Vice President, USA), Jess Staley (Global CEO of Barclays), Capt James Lang (British Army) and Ed Balls (British politician and media personality). Concurrently, research[1] suggests that people who stutter can develop strengths in creativity, empathy, resilience and listening – skills which we observe are in increasing demand in the changing workplace.

Further, as the future of work brings greater automation, algorithms and artificial intelligence, millions of new jobs will require different ways of leading, thinking and working together, ones where good interpersonal skills will be at a premium – the very skills often possessed by people who stutter.

To have an equal chance of getting into and thriving at work, we who stutter, our colleagues and employers need to be starting many more conversations and growing together through speaking and learning about stuttering.  50 Million Voices provides a way of accelerating that sharing and growth.

Transforming the world of work for people who stutter – and employers

‘50 Million Voices’ is an ambitious new global initiative to help transform the world of work for people who stutter and for employers too.  Launched in Spring 2019, we’ve brought stuttering leaders from 15 countries together to share ideas and best practice, including with some leading employers.  Our vision is clear and simple: “A world in which everyone who stutters can have a good job and a rewarding career”.

50 Million Voices is led by Iain Wilkie. He is an executive coach who stutters and a former senior partner and UK leadership team member at global professional services firm EY.  Iain is a recognised leader in promoting disability employment and previously founded the EY Stammering Network and co-founded the UK’s Employers Stammering Network. He is closely supported by Helen Carpenter MBE who has a strong track record in the not-for-profit sector, including working successfully with stuttering and employment.

Embracing stuttering as a different way of speaking at work

We’re looking for inclusive employers to come forward to hear and embrace stuttering as simply a different way of speaking. Our strategy includes partnering with employers, supporting our 50 Million Voices country leaders and inspiring role models who stutter at work.  In a nutshell, 50 Million Voices is a stuttering leadership programme.

Our 50 Million Voices country leaders come from Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Ghana, India, Republic of Ireland, Israel, Japan, Norway, Rwanda, South Africa, Spain, UK and USA and are supported by a small central team in the UK. We are all contributing our time pro bono.

Rapid progress

After just a few months 50 Million Voices is already creating change. Our group of committed leaders from across the world are using our platforms, sharing successes and taking ideas back to their countries for implementation. These include practice interview sessions, speaking events and language translations of best practice materials. Our leaders are also engaging in courageous conversations with more employers around stuttering and these are already resulting in more employer hosted events, workshops and education.


Feedback from our leaders

After an initial pilot, all of our country leaders are keen to continue with the 50 Million Voices initiative.  Here’s a some of their feedback:


“As an advocate for stuttering awareness and outreach in the USA, it has been extremely helpful to collaborate with leaders in stuttering communities around the world.  Making room for the 50 million voices that stutter will add new perspective and value to businesses and I am thrilled to be a part of this exciting initiative. I have already had several robust conversations with leaders from England, France, Israel and Australia and we all see the tremendous benefit of sharing and improving upon the wheel, instead of recreating it.”

Pamela Mertz – USA


“Thanks all country leaders. It’s motivated me so much to join this group.”

Daichi Iimura – Japan


“I think this is a great initiative and a fantastic project!”

Dina Lillian  South Africa


“50 Million Voices has really helped us get started. It opens the door for international cooperation to empower people who stutter at work. Sharing ideas with people from different cultures and points of view is the best way to come up with innovative ideas.”

Juliette Blondeau & Mounah Bizri, –  France


Looking forward – and an invitation

Emboldened by our successes and the positive feedback, we are now working on our two year goals and strategy.

We would be delighted to hear from people and organisations interested in finding out more. This might be as a person who stutters, on behalf of an employer, or a leader for a country interested in becoming involved in 50 Million Voices.


Whom to contact

Please contact either Iain or Helen from the core team, or one of our country leaders.  Also, you can follow us on Twitter at: @50MillionVoices

Core Team

Iain Wilkie iain@iainwilkie.com

Helen Carpenter helenjcarpenter@gmail.com

15 Country Leaders to contact


[1]

1 Stammering can be seen as something that can impart strengths, such as empathy and compassion for others, personal growth and strength of character and working to compensate through higher resilience or greater creativity (Hughes, S., and Strugalla, E. (2013). Recognizing Positive Aspects of Stuttering: A Survey of the General Public. Poster presented at Stuttering Attitudes Research Symposium (Morgantown 2013)). Butler (Butler, C. (2014) Wanted: straight talkers – stammering and aesthetic labour. Work, Employment & Society, 28, 5, 718-734) also identifies strengths such as “listening intelligence” and this ties in with Brocklehurst’s (Brocklehurst, P (2014). The Hidden Strengths of People who Stutter. www.stammeringresearch.org) findings that “Respondents identified a variety of strengths associated with their stammering and a number of ways in which their stammering had a positive impact on others.”

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Comments

Growing through 50 Million Voices – Iain Wilkie, Helen Carpenter — 18 Comments

  1. Thanks Iain and Helen! This is an amazing project and I can’t wait to pass on this information. For my clients applying to university programs or jobs, I often tell them the program/employer wants a well rounded person who can work cooperatively. That is the most desired character trait that a potential employer or academic will want. Show them that you are creative, empathetic, resilient, hard working and charming. Now I have research that supports this and can quote you: “Concurrently, research[1] suggests that people who stutter can develop strengths in creativity, empathy, resilience and listening – skills which we observe are in increasing demand in the changing workplace.”

    This paper will be a great addition to the discussion in my teen and adult support groups. Thanks again for the information!

    • Thanks Rita for your positive and enthusiastic comments. It’s great to read about the practical benefits you can see for your clients from the article. We ran a ‘Strengths workshop for people who stutter at work’ in the UK a couple of years ago. I was the project sponsor but attended as a participant. There were about 8 of us and we all found that, whilst living with a stutter presents us with challenges, through navigating those challenges it has enabled us to develop new strengths or enhance existing strengths. Knowing what they are, and being able to tell others – including in interviews backed up with an example of when we’ve used our strength from stuttering – is valuable for ourselves – and of course for our current or potential colleagues and employers.

  2. I am personally thrilled to be a part of 50 Million Voices.

    It’s bigger than you or me, or the US or the UK. Our collective efforts can really bring change and educate those who do not stutter that it is OK to talk, engage and work with us because we have gifts that can be contributed to the bottom line, and everyone is interested in that, right?

    Even though technology seems to be moving people away from real, in the moment and face to face talking, at the end of the day that’s what we need to do in job interviews, in meetings, on conference calls and to seal the deal.

  3. And we’re thrilled you’re part of 50 Million Voices too, Pam!

    Thank you for your comment. I can hear and I share your passion about collective effort and change!

    I think that increasing use of technology is actually making the whole spectrum of in-the-moment excellent interpersonal communication skills more valuable than ever, and we know that this encompasses a huge amount beyond fluency when speaking.

    It may turn out that we are at a very timely moment to show how different ways of speaking, combined with all those other aspects of communicating well, are a true asset for employers who want to have the edge.

  4. Good Morning Iain and Helen,

    This an amazing project and a very useful resource to pass on to others. I believe there is such a poor understanding of stuttering in the world. It is very sad and frustrating thing that people equivalate stuttering to lack of intelligence. The more advocacy for this, the more change will occur. Your project is changing people’s lives just by educating people. No one should be held from their full potential just because they are a person who stutters.

    I am curious if you have seen a person who stutter self-disclose in the interviewing process and if they do, how do employers respond?

    Thank you!
    Mackenzie McBride

  5. Hello Mackenzie

    Thank you very much for your positive comments about 50 Million Voices and your remarks about advocacy and change. Fully agree!

    To answer your question, yes I know a number of people who have self-disclosed at interview. Some have been applying for promotions and others coming to an organisation from elsewhere.

    In general terms, and depending on the role, my view is that if a candidate who stutters thinks about how they have dealt with different life situations or difficulties, it’s possible to place disclosure in a positive context in an interview. It might be possible to show in what way/how it has given you some strengths that an employer would want to hear about. Examples might include (but are not limited to):
    • Resilience
    • Creativity
    • Patience
    • Listening, writing or other communication skills, such as awareness of others’ needs.

    Or there might be a way of slipping into what you say at an interview examples of work or other activities that show how you’ve turned what might otherwise be seen as a weakness into a strength, such as getting involved in an organisation supporting those who stutter, speaking courses etc.

    But of course a lot also depends on:
    • How you feel about stuttering
    • The application you are making
    • The employer’s organisational culture.

    The main thing I think is important is to consider that it is not just a case of whether to disclose but also how, in order to create a positive impression.

    To give you one specific example, when I worked at the British Stammering Association we produced “Understanding Stammering: a guide for employers.” I know someone who sent this guide to the chair of an interview panel before their interview for a promotion. The panel said it was really helpful. The interviewee also pulled put a few points and explained how these affected them specifically. I was told afterwards by the interviewee that they found it great to have the guide to refer to and back up what they said and were asking for in terms of reasonable adjustments. And they got the job.

    Of course, that’s one example. But we certainly know of others. And of course I also know of situations where people have had very bad experiences with potential employers. But that also begs the question if they behave in a discriminatory way, would one even want to work for them?

    If you would like me to send you the guide I mentioned feel free to email me (see end of paper about 50 Million Voices above for my email address).

    Also, I thought I’d mention the section of the British Stammering Association’s current website which covers job interviews etc. You may have already seen this, but if not, here’s the link:
    https://stamma.org/get-support/at-work/job-hunting-interviews

    Hope this is helpful and thanks again for responding.

    Helen

  6. Hello Iain and Helen,

    Thank you so much for sharing this project with us. I have found this extremely resourceful and helpful. As a student studying to be a Speech Pathologist, I plan to share this information with my colleagues. In fact, my classmates and I read about this project and posed a few questions. Do you believe stuttering has limited your career opportunities in any way and if so how do you handle this? What would you tell potential employers about stuttering? Also, is there a word of advice that was given to you that has resonated with you since you received it?

    My classmates and I appreciate your responses!

    Marissa

    • Hi Marissa,

      Thanks for your positive response and for your questions too.

      I started my first full time job over 30 years ago when societal attitudes were much less accepting of difference, including to different ways of speaking like stuttering. Of course, some of those negative attitudes still exist, including in the workplace.

      However, I’ve learnt that by talking with people about stuttering, whether 1 to 1 or in much larger groups, I can help people understand and be more confident about stuttering. Many of these people have become allies of stuttering at work once they learn to see it as just a different way of speaking.

      In this regard, please see my ‘Millions of Courageous Conversations’ article about this in the ‘Stories and Experiences’ section.

      However, the person who held my career back because of my stutter was myself. I thought my stutter was a weakness and I just didn’t believe that I could have a successful career with a stutter, so I tried to hide it by avoiding speaking situations especially high pressure ones. It took me many years to realise that I was wrong and that what I had to say was just as valuable as what anyone else had to say.

      For advice re employers, its best to see them as potential allies who can be educated about stuttering. There are some useful points here https://stamma.org/getting-support/at-work/thriving-work. The NSA website in the USA also has useful advice for employers.

      The best advice I received was from one of my bosses who told me that “We’re interested in what you have to say, so stop trying to hide your stammer, we know you stammer”. He didn’t stammer/stutter, but he was ahead of his time in believing that it’s “Ok to Stammer”…or ‘Stutter’ as most parts of the world call it.

      It took me many more years to really believe him.

      Now I know that he was right.

      Unfortunately he died 10 years ago, but I did get to read at his memorial service and to stutter in front of hundreds of people as I did. But that’s another chapter in my story.

      So my final piece of advice for people who stutter is to find yourself a mentor or a buddy who can help with career advice and support. They don’t have to be your boss. Our stutter is a part of who we are and makes us different, so a mentor who accepts difference can be very valuable to us. Having support like that has really helped me.

      I hope this helps. Good luck to you and your class mates!

      Best wishes,

      Iain

  7. Hello Lain and Helen,

    Thank you for sharing your project and discussing the various resources that you and others have found helpful. I am a student study speech-language pathology and we often discuss creating treatment goals and activities that pertain to the daily activities and life participations of our clients. Furthermore, we have discussed the same phenomenon of stigmas in the work place. Your example about the interview and the resources used help provide a real life example of how I can assist clients with these scenarios if that is something they wish for. I am also excited to be able to share 50 Million Voices as a resource for clients and colleagues.

    Thank you,
    Jenna

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts and telling us about some of the valuable work you’re doing.

      You can follow ’50 Million Voices’ on Twitter at @50MillionVoices .

      Also you may find this link useful https://stamma.org/getting-support/at-work/thriving-work . Plus the NSA’s ‘We Stutter at Work’ section of the NSA http://www.westutter.org web-site.

      There’s also my ‘Millions of Courageous Conversations’ article for a more personal angle. It’s in the ‘Stories and Experience’ section of this on-line conference’

      I hope this helps.

      Best wishes,

      Iain

  8. Hey Iain Wilkie and Helen Carpenter,
    I have never heard of this program and am very intrigued about debunking the employer biases against their employees who stutter. As a new clinician in the field of SLP, I felt inspired to advocate for individuals who stutter in the workplace. I have a few question regarding you’re your program. How can I as an SLP help in changing the narrative and help people who stutter in the workplace? What places of employment have this new program? With this newfound program, how will this new initiative help employers understand the bias against their employees who stutter?

    Best,
    Tiffany Sagesse

    • Hey Tiffany,

      Thanks for your supportive comments and your questions.

      Our success in changing the narrative around stuttering depends to a large degree on how well we understand the cultural attitudes towards stuttering. That’s why ’50 Million Voices’ works to share with and support stuttering leaders in different countries because these leaders are such better placed to understand how to influence cultural change in their own society. For example, I have a good understanding of UK business culture, but I wouldn’t be much good at trying to change deep held cultural attitudes businesses in a lot of other countries.

      So my best advice is to contact your ’50 Million Voices’ country leader in the list following the article above. Fingers crossed that your country is included. If not then, please let me know.

      You may also find this web-site from the US NSA to be useful https://westutter.org/careersuccess/ .

      I hope this helps.

      Best wishes,

      Iain

  9. I am an SLP graduate student just beginning my learning journey of the stuttering experience, and before my current fluency disorders class, I had no prior knowledge relating to stuttering. I did not personally know anyone who stutters, nor was it much in evidence during my upbringing in a small rural town with my 2 TV channels. I think that the goal of increasing awareness of stuttering is of great importance. So much of what listeners respond to is shaded by their lack of knowledge. I confess, in my ignorance, it had not yet crossed my mind to consider the impact of stuttering in the workplace environment, beyond the vague minimal statistical mention in one of my textbooks. After reading about this project, I plan to lend my support, and make this a key resource for clients. I absolutely loved your framing of “…stuttering as simply a different way of speaking.” This is how I feel. Thank you so much for building this project!

    • Hi Chanah,

      Thanks for your feedback and for sharing your own perspectives.

      You may find some of my answers above to the questions that other conference participants have posted to be helpful too. I hope so!

      Good luck with your work and thanks for your interest in stuttering.

      Iain

  10. Hello Helen and Iain,

    As a SLP graduate student who is interested in fluency, I commend both of you for 50 million voices. As stated by Helen in her bio, ”
    People tend not to talk about stuttering, but we can all play a part in changing that.” Before graduate school, I knew a very little amount of information about stuttering. I’m sure after graduating, I will still only be knowledgeable of a fraction of information. It is important to educate people in the world about stuttering, especially employers. I am so happy that this project is doing so! Like you mentioned above, many people correlate stuttering with low competence. I love that 50 million voices is breaking this stereotype. I think this project is going to succeed in making an impact in the world of work for people who stutter. Thank you for sharing, I will definitely be looking more into 50 million voices in the future!

  11. Hello,

    Thanks for your enthusiastic feedback and for sharing your own perspectives.

    As you say, stuttering is not well understood in many societies and we can all play a part in changing that.

    I hope that the resources and articles that I’ve suggested in my answers above can support you and your students in doing that

    Good luck with your work – and thanks for your interest in stuttering.

    Iain

  12. Iain and Helen,

    Thank you for sharing. It is unfortunate that there is a bias towards people who stutter and misconceptions about their competence in the workforce. The ‘50 Million Voices’ initiative is inspiring and an incredible way to bring awareness to stuttering. I am excited to hear of your success within the past few months and the impact this has on both the employers and leaders of this initiative. It sounds like you are already changing society’s view of stuttering and showcasing many valuable interpersonal skills of people who stutter. With this being said, do you have any ideas about how to make information about stuttering more accessible to employers in various workplaces?

    Like many people in the above comments, I am also a speech-language pathology graduate student and love learning of ways that I can advocate for my future clients and bring awareness to speech and language disorders. I am hopeful that initiatives like ‘50 Million Voices’ will provide support and encouragement to people who stutter, especially in the workforce. Thank you again for sharing your passions and knowledge through this paper. I am excited to follow along with “50 Million Voices’ on social media.

    Best wishes,
    Madison

  13. Thank you, Madison, for your response and supportive comments.

    As I see it, to make information about stuttering more accessible to employers requires open-ness on the part of people who stutter to talk about it (and support to do so can make a huge difference I think). And of course, it requires open-ness from whoever they talk to to hear what they have to say.

    In my opinion, the majority of the 99% of adults who don’t stutter have little idea of what stuttering really is. If they are anything like me a few years ago before I got involved, I’d have assumed that a stutter was something a listener would always hear. I certainly didn’t know anything about hiding/avoiding speaking or specific situations, or swapping words on a regular basis for ones that might be easier to say. So I was entirely unaware of the internal struggles, concerns and fears attached to that, or how people like me could even be complicit in perpetuating that without knowing it.

    So, in short, people who stutter and people who don’t need to have a lot more conversations!

    You might want to look at Iain’s paper “Millions of Courageous Conversations” in the “Stories and Experiences” section of this website if you haven’t done so already and the responses to it.

    To support those conversations some countries, including the UK, have run successful workshops, talks/discussions for/with employers and people who stutter.

    Mentors/allies and speech therapists can encourage people to feel they can take those steps to being more open and talking about stuttering. Obviously some (larger) employers have explicit Diversity & Inclusion policies in place and others don’t and the context in different employers makes a difference as to whether an individual feels it is “safe” or “too risky” to be open.

    Finally , just to point you to a couple of web-based resources. In the UK:
    https://stamma.org/resources/employers-hr-professionals

    and in the US:
    https://westutter.org/careersuccess/

    I can think of one specific example, where somebody in the UK used the printed resource I mention in my response to Mackenzie above with their employer (a university) and from there was able to set up a staff network of people who stutter.

    Thanks again – hope this is helpful to you, and all the best with your studies,

    Helen