https://civilservice.blog.gov.uk/2016/01/28/changing-attitudes-to-stammering-in-the-civil-service/

Changing attitudes to stammering in the Civil Service

Walter Scott, MOD
Walter Scott, MOD

Back in October, Philip Rutnam, the Civil Service Disability Champion, announced that the UK Civil Service had joined the British Stammering Association Employers' Stammering Network (ESN). As a lifelong stammerer I found this truly uplifting.

For much of my working life, stammering has felt marginal to the mainstream of Diversity & Inclusion, perceived as a sort of comedy bit-part condition. Philip’s announcement was also a welcome development for the British Stammering Association, because the Civil Service offers a high-profile platform upon which to develop and showcase good practice in employment.

Last week, I attended a trial ESN workshop entitled, Successfully navigating employers attitudes towards stammering. First in a series of three, it was designed to arm corporate champions to return to their places of work – EY, Accenture, Citigroup, and Deloitte, to name a few – and engage with traditional views about stammering.

Disability models

The session was kindly hosted by EY at its More London offices. Our tutors were Rachel Everard, a longstanding therapist at the City Lit (and herself a ‘covert’ stammerer), and Sam Simpson of Intandem, a pioneer in merging traditional speech therapy with person-centred counselling. Uniquely, as a third tutor, Iain Wilkie, a senior partner at EY, brought his business experience and perspective to the course, grounding it in real-life corporate experience.

Early in the event, Rachel and Sam introduced three disability models:

  • the Medical model, which sees disability as a variation from the norm, requiring correction and adjustment to bring it into line
  • the Philanthropic model, which lavishes charitable resources, pity, special consideration, and stories of bravery and courage
  • the Social model, which recognises disability as relative to social barriers – attitudes, stereotyping, procedures, practices, and so forth

From the slides, I wrote down this (almost revolutionary) quote that had been lifted from the online Did I Stutter project:

Stuttering is only a problem – in fact is only abnormal – because our culture places so much value on efficiency and self-mastery. Stuttering breaks communication only because ableist notions have already decided how fast and smooth a person must speak to be heard and taken seriously. An arbitrary line has been drawn around ‘normal’ speech, and that line is forcefully defended.

Corporate cultures

As a group, we discussed the cultural landscape – one of perfection, performance, efficiency, efficacy, productivity and time-effectiveness. We considered the onus for polished, edited, media-style presentation, and for relentless self-improvement.

Turning to individual corporate cultures, Sam and Rachel displayed images from official websites, and we explored the values that different employers appeared to wish to project. The images from the defence industry showed military figures on parade or on night-time exercises; you couldn’t see their faces. People chipped in with such words as ‘uniform’, ‘standardisation’, ‘conformity’, ‘efficiency’, ‘target-driven’.

Another slide displayed a selection of the myriad online advertisements featuring the words ‘stop stammering’ to promote speech therapy services of varying quality. This was offered as a possible symptom of social culture that takes a hard line on dysfluency (of which stammering is one form), no matter what the underlying cause.

"OK to stammer"

In the latter stages of the workshop, Iain Wilkie spoke about the experience of setting up the EY stammering network, and its growth over the last four years. We saw some examples from its recent poster campaign featuring five EY staff members who stammer, focusing on the strengths they bring to their workplace, with the strapline: “It is OK to stammer”.

Much of the workshop was devoted to themed discussion in small groups. Personally, I took away real value in hearing about others’ experiences in the private sector. It was also a useful reminder that as a condition affecting 1% of adults, stammering is an ongoing and everyday management and recruitment issue for any substantial employer – public, private or third sector.

Those who stammer are all as talented as those who do not, often bringing highly valued qualities – such as resilience, creativity and listening skills – as a result of their condition. Yet in practice, recruitment processes and career progression all too easily militate against success for them, such that they and their employers lose out.

Norbert Lieckfeldt, chief executive of the British Stammering Association, will be holding a one-hour lunch & learn session at 12:30 on 11 Feb, at 100 Parliament Street in Westminster, for civil servants interested in learning more about stammering. For more information and to register click here.

You can find more information about the Employers Stammering Network here.

To access ESN services please e-mail Helen Carpenter (ESN Membership Manager) at hc@stammering.org; or for more information on the Civil Service ESN membership e-mail inclusion@cabinetoffice.gov.uk.

28 comments

  1. Alex

    I think raising awareness of stammering is a really important part of a very problematic issue for British society, language oppression.

    In Britain, we still seem to place massive value judgements based solely on the way people speak. Just speaking in a way which is associated with places slightly north of Watford is enough for many people to dismiss anything you say.

    Such an arbitrary measure of worth is clearly something that the Civil Service and society cannot afford to use.

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    • Walter Scott

      Alex - Yep, I think you're right about bias in regional variation of accent, and indeed the CS Learning 'unconscious bias' course touches very aptly on this. Equally it has been a good many decades since the BBC first put out a regional accent on its airwaves (the very notion!), instead of the mandatory Received Pronunciation expected by its listeners. We who stammer can but wait patiently...!

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    • Becky

      Walter, really good stuff. One problem I think in public perception, is that others perceive stammering as something 'other' that they don't/can never have. This is simply not the case - I had a head injury two years ago that left me (40 year old mother, with two young children) with a stammer and speech difficulties for a year. It makes you very aware that we are all human, all vulnerable and should respect and support all those around you who face challenges in day-to-day life. The lottery tag-line 'It Could Be You' could equally be applied when thinking about any matter that could be considered a disability or life challenge.

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      • Walter Scott

        Thanks Becky. You are so right: we do take our capacity for our miraculous gift of speech for granted, with scant regard for the complexity and vulnerability of the system that produces it. My trump card for dealing with the common misperception that stammering results from uncertainty or incoherent thinking is that 'inner language' is developed in a different area (or different areas to be precise - Wernicke's and Broca's) from the primary motor cortex that signals that lips, tongue, larynx, etc. Stammering is not occuring in the development of inner language; it is occuring somewhere in the physical connection with the primary cortex, due to faults or weaknesses in the white matter. I'd like that fundamental point to be better understood because it think it would change attitudes...

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        • Andy Robinson

          Walter I read your article and instantly thought this person has overcome adversity, preconceptions and systems to be successful in the Civil Service. I would like to contact you to disucss a proposal I have to ask you to come and inspire future leaders. I can't find your contact datails but if you are interested please get in touch via the Blog team.

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  2. Simon Daly

    Walter great article, than you for taking the time to both write and share it.

    I recently attended the Reith Lecture with Professor Stephen Hawkin. There were some technical glitches and quite a few pauses due to the interaction between the professor the technology and the software. At first it felt a little strange because it was different from what I was used to, what he had to say was compelling and I quickly adapted to the style and pace that his out of this world knowledge was being imparted.

    It was for me to do the adapting, within a few minutes I didn't give it another thought. My take away from the experience is, it is what you have to say not how you say it....

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    • Walter Scott

      Simon - that's an interesting view that it is for the listener to adapt, more than the speaker to adapt to their preferences. Perhaps it is easier to adapt to Prof Hawking's 'disfluency' because you instantly 'get' what is going wrong. Trouble with stammering is very few people understand the neural complexity of how speech is produced, much less what happens when its flow gets broken - perhaps that lack of knowledge contributes to the stigma - ?

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  3. Mr A

    I would be interested to identify what considerations are available for stammerers or people with dysfluency in civil service competency interviews?

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    • Walter Scott

      Mr A - I have only once ticked the Guaranteed Interview Scheme box for a CS interview, and was rewarded with a default extra 15 mins for the interview. What would really have helped me would have been a chance -- discrete from the interview itself, perhaps a week before -- to chat about my dysfluency with the recruiter, including in relation to the demands of the job itself. That way I would have felt on a level playing field with rival applicants. I believe that the CS Fast Stream team are trialling some new approaches for the Fast Stream selection process, which is great to hear...

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      • S

        "Reasonable Adjustments" under the Equality Act ought to include the person they are being made for! I would encourage you to go direct to the recruiting manager and make this suggestion next time you are applying for a new position; it seems like a perfectly reasonable suggestion to me.

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  4. Peter

    As an 'ex' stammerer. I am always intersted in hearing about stammering being talked about. What frustrates me is there is nothing on here that guides people to any help/advice. My grandfather, father, brother and i were all stammerers, yet I stopped stammering as a teenager. I 'did it for myself' and would be happy to explain how (my theory anyway, I don't think I 'grew out of it') to anyone who is intererested. I remember as a young boy sitting with speech therapits, marbles and empty tins. That didn't work, but a variant on their process did.

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    • Walter Scott

      Peter - I'd be interested to hear you managed it. For me it's been a gradual process of reconciling it with who I am, helped hugely by the fact that I am reasonably confident at public speaking. You should find links from this post guiding you to both the BSA website and the ESN pages, both of which provide a wealth of advice and sources of help/ therapy, etc. As for marbles - I don't care so much for their taste...

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  5. John Moore

    As a stammerer, I welcome anything that changes perceptions of people that suffer from the condition.

    I have had people presume that I was stupid because of my stammer, and in the past have had people in team meetings giggle to themselves when I have tried to raise an issue or put my point across.

    If people's attitudes are going to change, we need to make them aware that just because we have trouble saying what we want to say, that does not mean that what we have to say is not worth listening to. Given the time to do so, we can contribute!

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    • Walter Scott

      John - this all sounds reassuringly familiar. I think awareness is the absolute key - and that includes awareness of just what a miraculously complex gift human speech is, in hard neural terms, and how easily it can be jeopardised...

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  6. Richard

    I have a stammer and grew up thinking it was wrong and it was only when i went to university that i realised i didn't have to hide it, be ridiculous or aggressive as a means to deal with other peoples unwanted responses. At this stage of my life I see reactions to my stammer as a reflection of other peoples unresolved issues - essentially there is nothing wrong with my speech and never has been - I fell for a myth but not anymore. I currently work for the NPS as a sex offender group work facilitator (I worked in general offending programmes prior to this) and the only people who have ever commented negatively are those in authority who you'd have thought would know better (although I already knew they didn't as my school experiences taught me this). At one assessed Probation event I was asked whether I knew I had a stammer, encouraged to consider how this impacted upon the audience and (cue drum roll) given advice on how to cope. I'd recommend trying a bit of stammering you'll develop incredible resilence, imagination, decision making and have an amazing vocabulary (if you can't say a word what do you ? stick or twist ?). Also you will become an astute judge of other peoples character !

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    • Walter Scott

      Richard - those qualities you mention are a key message from the Employers Stammering Network - that stammering does bring compensating strengths, and that clever employers will make use of those strengths. I too grew up through school with an understanding that stammering was slapdash, not very 'robust', and something to just grow out of. That's quite a big psychological factor, cumulates through adolescence and over a lifetime, but I think if one can stick with it, it does bring exactly those benefits/strengths you mention. However, here is perhaps not the place to start arguing the superiority of people who stammer!

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      • Richard

        Thanks for replying Walter - I think for myself there was this assumption that 'you'll get there in the end' (where ever that actually is !) and that I'm somewhere measured against this unseen expectation that keeps changing. It's only later that I began to realise that development takes many forms - less a case of catching up more a case of developing along a different pathway !

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        • Walter Scott

          ...in career terms, the ideal, of course, might be for anyone with the condition to have the option of developing along the SAME PATHWAY as anyone without it - be it as a barrister, a call-centre operator, high street bank staff (customer-facing), air traffic controller, or whatever else. My experience is that where stammerers are given encouragement and support, the severity of the condition reduces, because ironically much of it derives from the struggle and pressure to appear fluent. And for as long as there are - or are felt to be - areas of no-go career territory for those with dysfluency, there is likely to be an associated underlying sense of stigma or of being somehow "second-rate"...

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          • Richard

            you're spot on about support and encouragement ...from my experience as time passed it was less about the stammer itself but the unhelpful narrative i'd developed as a result of my experiences. It was only when i came to terms with it myself that I began to examine this and i started to get different feedback from others and the world in general....I still stammered but it didn't have the same effect. When I look back the biggest factors were the reactions of others (I think seeking a therapist or solution would have reinforced that stammering was not ok - I'm not dismissing this type of help I just think for me having someone on my side was more important ). As I started to see my stammering as something that was ok I was surprised by how many people offered encouragement and support ..

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  7. Harvey

    I interviewed, selected and then worked with a senior manager who had a stammer. He got the job because he had the skills and experience for the role, his stammer was just a part of who was, it was never an issue (to him or us) He was someone who relished getting up in front of groups and presenting. He was absolutely brilliant on his feet, a great communicator and a real inspiration to others to not let false barriers get in your way.

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    • Walter Scott

      Harvey - I know of a number of stammerers who are awesome presenters/speakers. Norbert Lieckfeldt, chief exec of the BSA, is one of them, which is why (if you are London-based) I would strongly recommend his lunch & learn session on 11 Feb, as advertised below this post...

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  8. Arthur Young

    First thing that comes to mind when discussing stammering is the " King's Speech " if in my opinion the Royals back then couldn't find a positive solution to the way we speak, then we still have a long way to go in terms of raising awareness, ask any stammerer the onus is on us to accept our speech until hopefully given time a solution is found, teachers, parents, schools, employers have a policy of care to make sure they know as much about how a stammer can effect the individual, some characters, personalities cope really well with it, while others don't, it's how you see yourself that counts in the long run, no one wants to play the victim here, though until others accept how a stammer can effect us & take steps to take these issue's on board I'm afraid stammering may not be taken seriously, I still see TV programmes ridiculing the stammerer until these kind of incidents cease then we have a long road in front of us, on a positive note social media is now given us a louder voice & a chance to interact with fellow stammerers which is so beneficial to us all, youtube is another avenue to think about getting our point over regarding the effects a stammer can have, employee's can easily find out about this ( disability ) if they so wish, plenty information out there.

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    • Walter Scott

      Arthur - agreed; how you see yourself as someone who stammer is all-important; but it can demand a pretty stubborn or courageous mindset to develop a view of oneself that cuts against prevailing social attitudes - and particularly what one was given to believe as a child. Perhaps with organisations such as the BSA, Employers Stammering Network, and the various support groups springing up around the country, it is becoming easier to make that self-reappraisal - ?

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  9. Mark

    I like your 'stick or twist' portrayal Richard. I've been in situations when I have run out of words, but there are always alternatives and it's best to park those awkward moments and move on. I had a horrendous stammer when I was younger and used to run home from school because I couldn't say the bus fare in front of a bus full of school kids. I became a really good runner.

    In my twenties, I noticed that 'non-stammerers' were also imperfect. Some were petrified when they had to do presentations (I couldn't understand why). Some mumbled, perspired perfusely and tripped over their words and I decided that perhaps my speech wasn't so bad after all. Today I consider I fall into the iceberg category. My 'issues' may appear small, but there's a lot going on beneath the surface.

    Changing attitudes is difficult as stammering is uncomfortable. I have a friend who stammers and find myself looking at my feet. We both have a great sense of humour and the relaxation this brings frequently moves us through the moment. I fear most of the people who read this blog will stammer, or know someone who stammers. The greatest challenge has always been how to involve and educate the rest of the population.

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    • Richard

      Mark you're right sometimes you do have to leave it ! Your school bus experience really struck a chord. I struggled saying my name and depending on the context i would react differently, at school I'd frequently refuse to tell them or say i'd forgot where in some social situations I'd say a name I could actually say. As a teenager at one club i used to go to there was a big queue behind me and when it came to my turn to say who i was (you always had to sign in !) I made a name up .... at the same time someone else who knew me appeared and challenged this ....I laugh about it now but i do wonder how on earth did I get to believing that reacting in these ways was somehow more effective !

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  10. Colin Mitchell

    A really good article and some really good comments as well which really struck a chord for me. Been there and done that! As a life-long stutterer, I've worked for Land Registry for 34 years now, starting at the basement level and working my way up the ladder. When I joined Land Registry, I had been for several job interviews and been turned down even though I more than met their criteria. I remember the Post Office ringing me up to say they had thought I was a good candidate and, if I could do something about my stammer, they would employ me straightaway! Land Registry took me on and I have to say, my stammer has never been an issue to them. I have been judged on my capabilities, not my speech and I was simply given more time at interviews if I needed it. Like everyone else, I feared making telephone calls. presentations but forced myself to stand up and do them. As some one says above, the listener soon adjusts and I very quickly came to really enjoy standing up and presenting. If you listen, many so called fluent speakers are anything but. Loads of "ums" "you knows" etc. Wholeheartedly agree that more needs to be done at the centre to make it "OK to stammer" to remover the "fear". From a personal point of view I would just add that, aged 49 (mid-life crisis?), I decided for whatever reason to try and tackle my speech one last time. I attended a McGuire workshop (I know there is controversy over this and similar programmes) but I have to say that for me, it was a truly life changing moment. Still stammer, always have, always will. But I have so much more control now and have a large network I can call upon if I need to. In my younger years I used to dream of a cure for my stammer and how much better I would be as a result. I now truly think that having a stammer and dealing with it, has actually made me a better person as a result. I now regard my stammer as part of my uniqueness. Happy to talk about it with anyone if they wanted to contact me.

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    • Walter Scott

      Thanks Colin. That promise of a job with the caveat of fluency required is unintentionally cruel - whoever fed that back to you could have had no idea about what it might have compounded on top of experiences in childhood and adolescence. That scenario, repeated may times over, led to tragic and well-known consequences for a clearly able young man called Dominic (Dom) Barker - I think his story is told somewhere in the East Anglian Daily Times. It's good to hear that the Land Registry enabled you to fulfil your potential; I've been similarly lucky and well supported at the MOD. I'm glad the McGuire programme has helped as well. I think having any kind of support framework like that and comrades who understand the score is really beneficial

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  11. Neil Hughes

    Hello Walter, I really enjoiyed reading your blog and comments, refreshingly open and honest and most imortantly, real. Do you mind if use some of it to flag up the issue of stammering within my own place of employment - I work for Dstl, which is an agency of the MOD - ie civil servants

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