Beyond Understanding: The use of theatre to change public attitudes to stammering (Trudy Stewart, Jonathon Linklater, Paul Railton)

About the authors

Dr Trudy Stewart is a retired consultant speech and language therapist. She worked in the UK with children and adults who stammer for nearly 40 years. Her last role was clinical lead of the Stammering Support Centre in Leeds. She has taught undergraduate, graduate, and specialist courses for clinicians in the UK, Europe and Sri Lanka. She has carried out research while a clinician, presented her work at international conferences and has written several texts on stammering. Her latest book, published in 2016 is ‘Stammering: a resource book for teachers’. Currently she writes children stories, learns French and directs plays.
Dr Jonathon Linklater, a speech and language therapist in Ireland, stutters himself. Specializing in fluency disorders, he established an intensive therapy program called the Dublin Adult Stuttering (DAS) course in 2005. Jonathon co-founded the private practice in Dublin in 2011. He has been involved with the Irish Stammering Association since 2003 and is currently the Development Director for the charity. Since completing the European Clinical Specialism in Fluency Disorders in 2009, Jonathon has completed his PhD at the University of Limerick, with guidance from Trinity College Dublin’s School of Clinical Speech and Language Studies. He is past chair of the Irish Association of Speech and Language Therapists; the professional body for Speech and Language Therapists. He likes to make the occasional film.
Paul Railton is a Documentary Photographer and Film maker from West Yorkshire in the UK. He has created work with a strong social purpose for various publications in the UK and Ireland for over ten years. His photographs have been published in many international newspapers such as the Irish Times, the Sunday Times and many more. Most recently he has been working with refugee groups, charities and arts organisations creating short documentary films. Railton also recently curated an exhibition of photography by photojournalist Will Wintercross. The exhibition focused on a culmination of work spanning the photojournalist’s career to date; from his first work for the Ngami Times in Botswana to his war reportage in Mali and Syria, photographing the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone and Liberia and cricket in the Himalayas.

The social model of disability (Oliver, 1990) states that an impairment, such as dysfluent speech, may only become a disability when social issues such as physical barriers and/or negative public attitudes, are present.

There is a significant body of research demonstrating discrimination, stereotyping and stigma associated with stammering which is present in the general public (St. Louis, 2015) and in specific groups like teachers (Dorsey & Guenther, 2000).

A joint symposium in 2013 at the Stammering Support Centre in Leeds, England brought together researchers, clinicians and service users. They identified the need to tackle public attitudes. The group’s final report recommended research:

  “…to address misconceptions, overt prejudice, negative attitudes, discrimination including subconscious biases in order to remove barriers towards people who stammer.” (Stewart 2013).

There have been a number of attempts involving professionals, speech & language therapists, charitable groups and self help groups for people who stammer (PWS) to change public attitudes to stammering (Sugarman, 2004, International Communication Project, 2014). However, none in the UK have involved the use of an original stage play and a cast of amateur actors. This is a brief report on such a project.

The play was written by Yorkshire playwright, Neil Rathmell, with Dr Trudy Stewart (retired consultant speech and language therapist). The stammering community were involved in the development of the play script and in the rehearsal process; support groups from the Yorkshire region contributed to both. The aim of this collaboration was to produce an authentic and valid representation of stammering. The play depicted a range of typical situations experienced by a young adult who stammers called Alex, including, for example, a memory of the first time he realised his speech was different and this difference was called stammering.

The stammer was represented by a character called “the wrestler”. This depiction allowed the audience to see Alex’s experience of:

  • Struggling with his stammer
  • His difficulty in seeing his true self without the stammer getting in the way
  • The stammer undermining, challenging and reducing his confidence and self esteem.


After five public performances at The Studio, Carriageworks Theatre, Leeds, a focus group type interview was carried out by an independent person, i.e. someone who had not been involved in the writing or the performances (Dr Linklater). The aim of this interview was to ascertain what effect the play and the associated involvement with the stammering community had had on their perceptions and attitudes towards stammering.

At the outset it was established that the majority of the cast had little or no knowledge of stammering prior to seeing the play script at a play reading.

The key outcomes for this group of amateur performers were:

  1. They felt they had produced an authentic and valid representation of stammering
  2. They felt that their performances had been validated by the stammering community
  3. They better understood the physical aspects of stammering
  4. They better understood the covert issues associated with stammering
  5. They reported an increase in their own tolerance of hearing a person who stammered
  6. They better understood how to respond to a person who was stammering
  7. They felt a sense of responsibility towards accurately representing the stammering community to the wider public within their performances
  8. They reported the intention to act as advocates for the stammering community in the future

This is an initial report on this project. Further analysis on this group of actors, the audience responses and those of the director are planned for the future.

It is interesting to note that this involvement in a visual portrayal of stammering helped the cast have a deeper understanding of both the overt and covert components of the experience of stammering. They were able to construe the stammering community’s experience and this added a dimension of authenticity to their performances, which perhaps would not have been there otherwise.

In addition their experience appears to have impacted on their attitudes, intentions and behaviours towards stammering beyond the involvement of the play. Thus, the outcomes went beyond an educative function and allowed those involved to develop an advocate role for stammering, which is a new and exciting development which exceeded expectations and which offers possibilities for future work on public attitudes.

While the outcome of a world that understands stammering may be beyond the scope of any single activity, the use of theatre suggests that individuals and groups can be moved from beyond simply understanding stammering toward an advocacy role.


Dorsey, M. & Guenther, R.K. (2000) Attitudes of professors and students towards college students who stutter. Journal of Fluency Disorders, 25, 77-83

International Communication Project (2014) Retrieved 22 August 2014

Oliver, M. (1990) A sociology of disability or a disablist sociology? In L. Barton. (Ed.) Disability and Society: Emerging issues and insights. London: Longman.

St. Louis, K.O. (ed.) (2015) Stuttering meets stereotype, stigma, and discrimination: an overview of attitude research. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press

Stewart, T. (2013) A Report on a Joint Symposium. Stammering Support Centre, Leeds. Sept 2013. Available on ECSF website.

Sugarman, Michael (2004) “International Stuttering Awareness Day – ISAD from conception to present day”Minnesota State University, MankatoUnited States. Retrieved 22 August 2017

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Beyond Understanding: The use of theatre to change public attitudes to stammering (Trudy Stewart, Jonathon Linklater, Paul Railton) — 32 Comments

  1. I am a SLP masters student at Idaho State University. I recently completed an assignment that required me to pseudostutter for a day to unfamiliar listeners. The outcomes of my experience were very similar to those of the actors. After pseudostuttering, I feel more connected to the stuttering community and I have a better understanding of the covert and overt effects of stuttering. More than anything, as noted in the report, I have a newfound desire to act as an advocate for the community. Educating and exposing the masses to stuttering seems like one of the most effective ways to break down the negative stereotypes. This play was a marvelous way to do that.

    • Hi
      Glad to hear that pseudo stuttering had such a useful and powerful effect. I hope you can continue to use those insights.
      Ofcourse the key difference in that experience as opposed to the experiences of PWS is that you chose to pseudo stutter and chose when to stop. Many PWS would welcome having that choice, I think.
      Thank you for your positive comment about the play. I hope that we can all work together on breaking down negative steretypes where and whenever we can.
      Best regards, Dr T.

  2. It is apparent that this theatrical performance resulted in a positive change of perspective for those that participated in the production. I believe it was important that the stammering community was involved in the development to create a more authentic experience, but what made you all decide to create a play with hypothetical scenarios to act out rather than having the participants complete a pseudo-stuttering assignment in a real life situation? Do you think there would be any benefit to having a production where the performers were PWS that were acting out to the general public as well?

    • Hi there
      Thanks for your comments and interesting questions.
      The original intention was to write and put on a play about an ordinary guy who stammers (rather than a King of England, for example). I realised early on that it was crucial to involve the stammering community in the writing and then in teaching the actors how to stammer. This ensured that the final product was a valid and authentic representation of stammering- not just my experience.
      I did not set out to change the actors attitudes to stammering through their experience- but it did happen.
      I did not set out to change the attitudes of those who came to see the play, either – but that happened too.
      With regards to PWS as actors: The auditions what were held were open to fluent and non fluent/pws speakers. But no pws auditioned.
      I would have cast a PWS in any of the roles had I had that opportunity.
      Best wishes, Dr T

  3. Hello! I am also a SLP masters student, at UNC Chapel Hill. I do not stutter, so I could never fully know what it is like to experience it myself, but that play gave me such great insight into the emotional struggle of stuttering. I was wondering if you thought using theater to change public attitudes of stuttering could be used in the schools. Maybe the kids themselves could act it out, or if not some actors could come in. Do you think after toning it down to the children’s level, would it still convey the depth of the struggle and reduce stigma and bullying?

    • Hi. Thank you for your comments. How great that you were able to get some insight into stammering from just our little clip! Thats great!
      I love your idea of using theatre to give kids some awareness. I think getting them to stand in the shoes of a kid who stammers would really work well. Kids can be amazingly empathetic.
      Lets try it out and see what happens!
      Best wishes, Dr T

  4. Hello! I am a graduate student at the University of Minnesota Duluth and I am enrolled in an advanced fluency course. This play gave me a great insight into the lives of people who stutter. I am curious as to the format of the focus groups. Were the focus groups an open discussion or were the participants asked questions?

    • Hi. Thank you for your comments. It is great that the play gave you some idea of what it is like to stammer.
      Thank you for your question about the focus group type interviews. I can see from the paper that it is unclear. The focus group type interview was carried out with all members of the cast after the final performance. The questions were composed by Dr L, who had not met the cast previously. The cast were asked a series of questions with follow up questions, if their responses required elaboration. All members of the cast were free to participate in answering and participating in the discussion that developed. The whole interview was videoed and further analsis of the themes which emerged is planned.
      I hope that clarifies the format.

  5. I love that the idea of theatre can bring the realization to people about the emotional side of stuttering. As a future SLP and someone who loves theatre it is always nice to see those two things come together. I know that you mentioned the key outcomes that came from this performance but which one do you think this the most important for someone to realize about stuttering? Do you think there is a difference in key outcomes if someone watching the performance is a stutterer compared to someone who has had very little insight into stuttering?

    • Hello- yes, me too. Great when you can bring 2 things you feel passionate about together!
      Thank you for your interesting question. My first reponse was ‘no there is not a single thing: what they need to hear will be different for each person. But then I thought maybe the single thing is: dont assume you know about stammering and the PWS experience of stammering. Dont assume you know how to respond or know how they want you to respond ASK THEM. Ask them about their stammering, their experience, how they want you to be, how they want you to respond if they get stuck.
      Thats such an empowering and respectful thing for the PWS and their listener.
      With regard to your second question, Ive got some data from our audiences, responses from PWS and fluent speakers. I havent analyzed it all yet, but just looking at the commanalities , both groups found the play a hard watch, but the reasons were different. For the PWS, they were reliving their memories. For the fluent speakers they were shocked that things could be as they are portrayed; they had no idea.
      Interesting, isnt it?

  6. Hello! I am a graduate student enrolled in an Advanced Fluency course at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Your results have shown that the play has positive effects on perspectives and understanding which could be a potential way to advocate for people that stutter. Have you thought of any additional ways to display this video and study so it can continue to spread understanding and perspective?

    • Hello. Thanks for your comments and also for suggesting we should take our recording of the play to other audiences. Personally, I think the cast and I would love to come and perform in Duluth!
      We are going to perform at the ECSF symposium in Antwerp in Feb 2018 which is exciting. I am also discussing other possibilities in the UK and Ireland
      I think the way forward is to get a performance professionally videoed and then offer copies of the video out to training establishments, Universities, self help groups, maybe employers. I dont know but would welcome ideas.

  7. This was very moving, I think this is a great way to share with the world the struggles that PWS experience.
    I noticed from the comments above that none of the actors who auditioned were PWS, do you have any hypothesis as to why the community is lacking actors who stutter or stammer? Also do you think if more PWS were represented in the acting community in theater, film, and television it would decrease negative attitudes, discrimination, and prejudice against PWS?

    • Hi Jordan. Thanks for your comments.
      Im not sure why there are so few actors who stammer. It could be that many PWS feel its a career that would not suit them or presume they would be excluded from.
      In answer to your second question, the research on changing public attitudes would support the view that increasing the profile of PWS in society and PWS telling there stories more would improve public attitudes towards stammering. Im looking for a PWS newsreader.
      Thanks again
      Dr T

  8. This video really brought light to how a PWS feels emotionally. One thing that stood out to me was when the actor mentioned if it wasn’t for his stutter he could have been a contender and accomplished more. This has bee brought up in my fluency course work as an SLP graduate student. Hearing it through the video made me realize how emotional stuttering can be and the negative self image it can create.

  9. I love the idea of incorporating advocacy for stuttering into theatre. I have been involved in theatre throughout my life and have seen how underlying messages in shows can affect the audience and the community. People are more likely to watch plays, shows, or movies than go to an educational event or seminar. This form of outreach has the possibility to reach more people in the community and bring more awareness to stuttering. This idea can relate to movies and TV as well. Stuttering is very rarely seen in the media, or if it is, it is usually portrayed with negative stigmas and stereotypes. By creating a more positive image of stuttering in the media, we can begin to change the stigmas and stereotypes that come along with stuttering.

    • Hi Kristin
      Thank you for your comments.
      This issue of identifying stammering as a reason why a person is unable to do certain things in their life is an interesting one. Therapeutically, it can be a useful outcome measure ie to see how the pws changes his views on this over time.
      Thanks again
      Dr T

    • Thanks Annie,
      You are right. I think the theatre and arts media in general can be a powerful way to educate, inform and therefore change attitudes.
      Lets do it!
      Dr T

  10. Hi there!
    My name is Kara Hendrickson and I am currently a student at the University of Minnesota, Duluth and I am currently taking an Advanced Fluency Disorders course. I love the idea of your play! I am currently a graduate teaching assistant (GTA) at my university and one of the courses I GTA for requires the students to watch a film with a PWS, the students all enjoy this experience and I think it’s a valuable learning experience.
    What was the inspiration for this play?
    Have you had positive feedback?
    I think it would be amazing if you shared this with universities in your area, students would really benefit from watching this! Also, it’s good to know that you plan to do further analysis on the group of actors. It would be great research to gain insight on their attitudes.
    Thank you,
    Kara Hendrickson

    • Hi Kara
      Thanks for posting your comments.
      You ask about the inspiration for the play – thats easy – listening to client’s stories for 35 years! So many narratives of bravery and courage, of pulling up out of a dark place and achieving the seemingly impossible. What started out as just ‘doing a play’ turned quickly into representing these clients I had met and producing something which was valid and could change attitudes. I think we did that!
      Yes, the feedback has been amazing. Lots of the audience said it was powerful and difficult to watch.
      I would like it to be available as a training tool. So I am trying to get funding to make a video/dvd that would fit the bill. Watch this space.
      Dr T

  11. Wow…that is so fascinating. I think public attitudes toward stuttering would change for the better if people understood stuttering more. Creating a theatre production like “Unspoken” is the perfect way to do that. Showing the main character’s thoughts play out between two people as he thinks about his stuttering makes for a memorable visual experience that could be very impactful on a person who does not stutter and has never been in this type of situation.

    I think the same is true with the actors themselves. I liked that participating in the play caused the actors to understand stuttering more and become advocates. It reminds me of the pseudostuttering project I completed this semester. (I am a first-year SLP grad student. For a class project, I went out and stuttered in public to analyze people’s reactions and how I felt.) While this was notably just a brief experience, it provides a person with a new perspective that they can’t get from simply reading about something!

    • Hi Moriah,
      Thanks for your comments.
      I totally agree with you. So much of the problem of stammering is its social context. Its not just what the individual experiences (ofcourse that is significant) but put it in a context where the pws is speaking to listeners with a judgemental, negative attitude to stammering, and the whole problem is magnified.
      We all need to work, not just with the pws, but with those significant others round them and in the wider social context.
      Dr T

  12. I found this play to be incredibly moving and powerful. As a current speech language pathology graduate student this really helped to further my understanding of the experience of a PWS. I thought that the portrayal the character’s struggle to see his true self without his stammer getting in the way was extremely well done.

    As a future SLP and a theater lover, I always enjoy it when these two worlds collide. I am so glad that this play left an impact on both the audience members and those involved in the production. Theater is a great way to bring education and awareness to any topic, as the information will reach people people who likely would not have sought out this knowledge on their own. I would love to see stammering portrayed more in plays, movies, and TV shows, as well as in other art forms such as dance, music, poetry, and the visual arts. I think that showcasing this world through art is a powerful way to help change public attitudes about stammering and thereby break down the negative stereotypes.

    • Hi Lani
      Thanks for your positive comments.
      I agree that using the arts may well be a great media to change peoples attitudes to stammering.
      Any thing that can help people understand what it is really about has to be a good thing
      All the best with your studies
      Dr T

  13. Hi Trudy, Jonathon and Paul,

    I was heartened to read about your attempts to change attitudes (towards stammering) via a theatrical production. I have long advocated the need to increase public awareness about the subject. 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 that we encounter.

    Like you, I decided to “take up the cudgel” and do something meaningful about the lack of understanding that exists. When (back in 2000) 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. However, such concerns proved to be completely unfounded.

    During the past 17 years, I have been inundated with invitations to address diverse organisations. The need for speakers is insatiable. Without virtually any promotion, I have now undertaken more than 500 talks. My presentation (of one hour’s duration) is followed by a lively Question and Answer session. The feedback that I receive is always extremely positive. Many of my listeners confide that they were previously unaware of the extent to which stuttering can impact upon someone’s life. Having been provided with a better understanding, they say that they will now view persons who stutter in a different light. Many also seek guidance as to how they should react in the presence of PWS.

    I truly believe that the lives of many persons who stammer could be significantly enhanced if more of us are prepared to speak publicly about our experiences. However, I fully appreciate that the very nature of stammering is such that some may well feel reluctant, or unable, to discuss it with others.

    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? I feel it is unreasonable to expect national/international stuttering organisations to assume sole responsibility for making others aware of the issues that we face. I view it as a collective responsibility.

    One final point, 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.:-)

    Incidentally, if you require a “mature” leading man for any of your future productions – then don’t hesitate to contact my agent. 🙂

    Thank you, so much, for sharing.

    Kindest regards

    Alan Badmington

    • Hi Alan
      How nice to hear from you. Sounds like you are continuing to get the word out!
      Keep up the great work
      Best wishes
      Dr T

  14. Hi! I am currently an SLP graduate student at Touro College. I noticed that someone in the above comments asked about the lack of representation of PWS in the cast. I would like to add on to this question by asking if any of the PWS involved in the play’s development were curious about/upset by this themselves? Or did they think that the educational benefits from the actors’ experiences of pseudo-stuttering outweighed the lack of representation of actual PWS?

    • Hi
      Thank you for joining the discussion. You asked if any of the pws involved in the plays development were curious or upset about ‘this’ – which I presume refers to the lack of pws in the cast. Everyone in the cast and crew were aware that we had had open auditions, so we would have auditioned any and all who expressed an interest in performing irrespective of their level of fluency. There just werent any volunteers, unfortunately.
      Who knows there maybe other performances of the play with a cast full of pws, now that the play has been shown.

  15. I loved to be on stage, and our school had a play every year. I, being a pws, was denied a spot and was put into the choir instead. Years later, when being at a dull AGM, I suggested to do theatre to lighten up the evening. And we did. 🙂 For years that was the best day of the year, as it gave me confidence and lots of laughter and I hardly stuttered on stage.

    Thanks for sharing and making theatre a part of therapy.

    Keep talking!

    Anita S. Blom, Sweden

    • Hi Anita
      Thanks for sharing your experiences of the theatre.
      Actually, we refer to a similar memory in the play- Alex the main character remembers not being given the role of Joseph in the school nativity when he so badly wanted to play that role. He is given a smaller, non-speaking role instead.
      We need to educate those working in schools, not to presume they know what children who stammer want or do not want. Instead they should be encouraged to ask the child directly to express his preference.

      Dr T

  16. Thank you so much for bringing up the power of theatre in therapy. Negative public attitudes can be changed with awareness, education, and acceptanc and art is a great way to do that. We need to fully represent PWS and others who may have disorders that are misunderstood by the general public. This is a good start, but I would like to see more PWS in plays, on tv, in movies, etc. This type of work has the power to change hearts and minds not just of the gernal public but also PWS and gives professionals like SLPs an opportunity to collaborate with other professional. Let’s be comfortable with stuttering and listening to those who stutter in daily life and in the arts.

    Thanks again for your work!

    Laura Mee

    • Hi Laura
      Thanks for your interesting thoughts on this
      I totally agree that we need to fight to see pws represented in society.
      I also think we need to see less ‘cleaning up’ of oral speech in the media. In the same way that visual images are often ‘improved’, I hear that editors in the media remove the normally occurring non fluencies from contributors speech. This does not help the general public to develop a natural tolerance to dysfluency and this could well be the way to start changing attitudes to stammering.
      Dr T