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 am now very involved in 50 Million Voices, which is working with leaders from six continents to transform the world of work for people who stutter.
With a current hiatus due to the pandemic (but the aspiration to bounce back!) I also co-run an initiative bringing people together to explore architecture, environment and social history in London’s fringes.
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.
I’m not a person who stutters, nor am I a Speech and Language Therapist, and to my knowledge, I don’t have any family member who stutters.
But, somewhat unusually, I have listened to hundreds of stuttering voices, each one unique.
I have been and still am on a journey of learning and discovery about stuttering. This has prompted me to offer and share a few of my thoughts about resilience in this context from a somewhat different perspective — that of the listener.
My own learning journey, which has had its own share of setbacks along the way, started when I worked at the British Stammering Association (now Stamma – stamma.org/) for three years. It continues with my ongoing involvement with 50 Million Voices (50millionvoices.org), which is working with leaders from six continents to transform the world of work for people who stutter.
I’m sure now, looking back five years and more, if I thought about stuttering at all, that I probably shared quite a few of the misconceptions people have about it.
Also, I had absolutely no idea how many more people stutter than I was ever aware of, because, in my mind, stuttering was something immediately and consistently obvious to any listener. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in this.
So, what does not understanding what stuttering really is have to do with resilience?
If you can’t hear or see someone obviously struggling with their speech — and even if you can — then you can’t possibly know what is going on underneath.
What happens if that person then tells you that they stutter, but to you, it doesn’t sound like what you think a stutter sounds like? Indeed, you may not have even noticed.
A common, and I think understandable, reaction is to behave in a way that suggests it is somehow “less” than what the person who stutters is experiencing inside.
How did I come to realize rather more was going on than met my eye? Probably only after I’d heard lots of people who stutter talking about how they had previously tried (or continue to try) to hide it, or to avoid situations where it might be more obvious.
This is what helped me understand somewhat better the internal reality of stuttering and to what extent attitudes in society at large are rigged to confer value on fluency in speech.
As I see it, there is a huge gap between the inner and outer worlds of both the person who stutters and the listener who doesn’t.
If you can’t hear, see, understand or appreciate what something is, then it affects your reaction. After all, we can only react to what we have experienced.
With stuttering, as a listener you cannot see or appreciate the quality of resilience either, if you do not already know what stuttering actually is.
Understanding and appreciating the resilience that can come with stuttering is really only possible if people disclose something of their experience, including what is going on inside. The most valuable conversations of any kind always involve some degree of disclosure.
There is, in my opinion, a need and an opportunity for more people like me to engage in valuable conversations with people who stutter, however “obviously” they stutter or not.
For myself, I can say with certainty that such conversations have been nothing short of revelatory. They have taught me so much and I have made new friends with many people who stutter as a result.
I think I had considered how hard giving talks or presentations might be if you stutter.
However, I did not realize how challenging introducing oneself, or speaking in any situation where a specific word or form of words is needed, such as ordering food and drinks, can be. It’s something I’d always taken for granted without giving it any thought.
But what really affected me, was that I’d had no idea that many people who stutter monitor internally what they are about to say on a constant basis, avoiding sounds and situations or switching words that may be easier to say.
As a linguist, I know from experience how tiring it can be to participate fully in conversation in another language where you may not have all the necessary words at your disposal for instant use. But generally, in that situation, I’ve found it’s more likely than not I would be praised for “having a go”.
In contrast, when someone who stutters is internally constantly monitoring their speech, no one else realises the effort involved. Not only that, but others may also make false or negative judgements, consciously or not, about what might come across, for example, like an awkward turn of phrase.
People who don’t stutter often respond in ways that underestimate the impact of stuttering on the person who experiences it. So often I think this is through a lack of understanding, or even of recognition that the person they are listening to has a stutter. And sometimes, those reactions are hurtful, though not usually intentionally.
In short, this is how I realized how much grit, courage and yes,resilience, it takes to deal with the numerous situations that arise in daily life and at work if you stutter.
I’ve found that having got “used to” hearing a wide range of different stuttering voices in conversation, where, so far as I know, people are talking as they are and are not “hiding” that they are a person who stutters, it is then much easier to be a listener and to feel comfortable to ask questions.
But it’s not only “whether” people disclose that they stutter, it’s also “how” that affects how people react.
And that “how” is also what enabled me to discover, appreciate and really respect the resilience of many people who stutter. It is all about the way the speaker and the listener truly engage with each other.
The challenge is that most people haven’t had the privileged access to conversations that I have had, and as far as I’m concerned, that is something we can all work on together — people who stutter in conversation with people who don’t. It’s a driving factor for me in the exciting work that I am doing with 50 Million Voices and the world of work.
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