By Colin Marsh, Trustee of the British Stammering Association
People who stammer sometimes have blocks, prolongations or repetitions in their speech. We know what we want to say, but can have difficulty getting the words out. This has implications for us, not just when being interviewed for a job, but after we start work. Imagine not being able to take a full part in a meeting, or to hold your own in a discussion. Worse, imagine being told that you were not being offered career development opportunities, promotion or extra responsibility because your speech was perceived to be a “problem”?
Imagine being told, as I was by one employer, that I could not represent them at important meetings because my speech meant that I couldn’t be relied upon to say the right things to the right people?
Imagine being told, as one young graduate was, that he would be offered a job as soon as he “lost” his stammer?
You think I exaggerate? These are not anecdotes – these incidents really happened.
Around 1% of the adult population have a stammer, that means about 400,000 of working age. It is less common in women, the ratio of male/female stammerers is about 4:1no one is quite sure why. Given these figures, every career guidance practitioner should, at some stage of their careers, find themselves interviewing a client with a stammer – or should they?
I referred to stammering as “the hidden disability” for a very good reason. Many of us have become highly skilled, over the years, at keeping our stammers hidden – we call it “avoidance” – and I am well used to my colleagues saying to me, “ but Colin, you don’t stammer!” The fact is, I do, always have done, and probably always will – but I have learned to live with it. Others are less fortunate – and if they are not accessing good quality careers advice and guidance because they or others perceive their stammer to be a “problem” then this should be a matter for concern.
My own experience suggests that there are many stammerers who are employed at well below their intellectual and educational ability, and that a higher percentage of stammerers are unemployed than in the population as a whole. Where someone who stammers has taken a conscious decision to remain in their comfort zone, and work at a relatively low level, I have no problem with that. What I do have a problem with, personally and professionally, is where an individual is deliberately “held back” by an employer who feels that the stammer is sufficient reason for so doing – and to judge by the calls made to the BSA “Helpline” this is a more frequent occurrence than, I guess, most of us in the careers business would like to admit.
The implications are clear. Stammering is not just a speech problem, but also one of negative feelings and thoughts associated with speech, and how much a person stammers can vary greatly from situation to situation and from day to day. Different people stammer differently, and in different situations, so one cannot make general assumptions about “people who stammer” not being able to take on particular roles.
And yet, as I hope I have demonstrated in this article, this is exactly what does happen!
In an attempt to overcome these negative attitudes, the BSA is working with ICG and AGCAS to help Careers Advisers to become more comfortable when working with clients who may stammer, and to help them – the stammerer – conquer their fear that the Adviser will not be able to help them. The BSA “helpline” manned by people who themselves stammer, is a useful first port of call and can be accessed via www.stammering.org