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Civil Service

Supporting civil servants who stammer

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Diversity and inclusion
Head shot of Betony Kelly
Betony Kelly

Did you know that 1% of the adult population stammers? That translates to more than 4,000 people across the Civil Service who have difficulties speaking fluently or feel the need to hide their stammer.

Saturday 22 October was International Stammering Awareness Day, an annual event designed to help stammering associations, individuals and groups around the world to mark the day and to raise awareness of stammering.

Stammering is a complex neurological disorder that is often misunderstood. A stammer can affect each person in very different ways and at different times in their life and career. The Civil Service is committed to supporting everyone at all grades to feel confident to express themselves, regardless of fluency. By supporting stammerers, we can improve our communications culture across all departments and show it’s the quality of what you have to say, not how you say it, that matters.

Philip Rutnam, Civil Service Disability Champion

british-stammering-associationA group of civil servants have come together to form the Civil Service Stammering Network to create a safe space for civil servants of all grades and from all departments to share experiences and campaign for awareness and support. This group is open to people who stammer, those who have family members who stammer and those who want to be allies and support their colleagues.

Here's what some of them say about their experience of stammering:

I live in this weird parallel universe where saying good morning can sometimes be harder than giving a 20-minute talk to an audience of 100.  

Andrew Janes, National Archives

Many of my colleagues have no idea how much time I take up keeping my fluency and hiding my stammer. Sometimes I just keep quiet in meetings because I'm just too tired to talk.

Sarah Baskerville, Department of Transport

Because I stammer, my vocabulary is quite extensive, as I have to think to myself which words describe a situation, how many different words for that situation do I know, how difficult to say is each word, what sound does each word have and how will that word sound after the preceding word – ‘n’ words are quite easy to say after the ‘s’ sound, but not after the ‘b’ sound – all in the blink of an eye during a conversation.

Nigel Hobday, Forestry Commission

I work in the Digital Directorate at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and provide the admin for the Facebook group. So, if you’d like to join, just send a request on Facebook or email me directly. It is a closed group, so those outside the group (including Facebook friends) cannot see your posts.

Green ribbonYou can show your support and help help raise awareness of stammering at any time:

  • change your Facebook or Twitter profile picture to show the 'Talk about stammering' poster, or to a sea green ribbon, which you can download here;
  • add a twibbon to your existing Facebook or twitter profile picture; or
  • wear sea green to show your support and start a conversation about stammering.

'A great place to work' logoIf you’d like to learn more about how you can support colleagues who stammer, or if you’d like more information about the Civil Service Stammering Network or the support on offer to civil servants, please contact me.

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  1. Comment by Caroline posted on

    I have had lots of therapy and my stammer comes and goes ,and is now fairly mild.
    What helps me most, I think, is to say to people initially 'sometimes I stammer', and then neither of us is embarrassed.
    And yes, the terror in the past of having to introduce oneself round the group!

  2. Comment by Jill posted on

    I have a 15 year old daughter who has a stammer and have witnessed her heartbreak at being ignored and talked over and she does have low self-esteem. I can't begin to count the number of times she has said 'no-one listens to me' and that must be a terrible feeling. Anything like this network that supports people who stammer and makes others think about how they behave, is a brilliant thing.

  3. Comment by Smoggy posted on

    Congratulations to all of the above for their bravery in admitting that they have a "disability", that is often over looked as a disability.

    No one would mock someone who was blind or in a wheelchair, so why mock someone with a speech impediment?

    Just remember you are not alone and that lots of famous people have suffered with speech difficulties, most people know about King George VI and Winston Churchill, as a child I remember watching "Call my Bluff" and the Captain of one of the teams had a speech impediment.

  4. Comment by Gavin Thomas posted on

    Thank you for an interesting blog. I have to say that I worked with someone who had a stammer and we talk about the Open all hours and the character played by late Ronnie Barker. My colleague not only thought that the character was funny but that it also drew public attention to the issue.

    For me, the fact that my colleague had a stammer did not affect his ability to carry out his duties effectively and my behaviour towards him was the same as his peers.

    It is disappointing to hear of colleagues who experience BHD but unfortunately, there are a few small minded people out there who behaviour in such a manner because they are unable to understand why it is unacceptable!

  5. Comment by Charene posted on

    I have also been a person who stammers since childhood and struggle most days, like all those commenting so far, few people would know or realize, that when they say 'get it out', it is more of an issue then they know. My stammer has become less pronounced through the years, as I keep up the tips learnt during 5 years of speech therapy in high school, but my worst time for stammering then and now is on the phone, especially having to leave messages. Now with the move to less travel and more teleconferences, I am finding my contribution at many meetings slowly decreasing as I find it hard to be quick enough to contribute where I can and end up being impolite and cutting people off. Something I really don't like doing.

    I have found all your comments above very heartening to know that we all seem to experience the same and we all get through it. Right from those dreaded certain words to the 'introduce yourself' at workshops.

    • Replies to Charene>

      Comment by Betony Kelly posted on

      I think everyone with a stammer shares your dread of the phone, Charene! I used to unplug my desk phone when my speech was particularly bad, so people would call my mobile and I could take the call away from everyone else.
      I'd really recommend having a chat with your line manager to help explain some of the coping strategies you use, so that they can be more understanding at some of the ones that could come across as 'impolite', as you put it.
      Do contact if the Civil Service Stammering Network, if you'd like us to help.

  6. Comment by Yesim posted on

    I have had a stammer/stutter since early childhood. I go through phases when some days, even weeks are worse than others but this is a daily battle. When people find out I have a stammer they say I hide it well or had no idea; although to me it is blatantly obvious in nearly every sentence. There are the regular letters that are worse to say and I have to take those at a slower pace. Sometimes it feels like people are 'switching off' when I talk; as I try to talk slowly and breathe through to limit my stammer; maybe I come across as boring. I also find that my voice sometimes rises when I'm trying to get something across and am struggling with it. This is worse when I am having a conversation with someone who naturally speaks fast. I am far happier being on the outskirts rather than centre of a group although I do try to overcome my fears by joining in. A pet hate of mine that makes me anxious is the 'introduce yourself' part of a workshop. I can already hear myself stammer going over what I'm going to say before its even my turn. I find talking about my stammer embarrassing; having been bullied at school because of it and don't like highlighting it as I feel that highlighting it makes people listen out for it more. It may sound strange but I took Drama at school and found that I didn't stammer when playing a part or singing. Its a shame life doesn't have a script. I watch programmes and read articles about stammering when on TV or in newspapers and always end up in tears by the end. I'm sorry about the essay here and thank God I didn't have to stand up and say it all 🙂

    • Replies to Yesim>

      Comment by Caroline posted on

      Yesim, your comment really resonated with me, especially the point about having to introduce yourself in a workshop or meeting. I used to stammer mildly in childhood. Today, it is having to say my name and what I do in front of everyone which always throws me. I can feel my heart beating faster as it gets to my turn, and that dread feeling that I'm not going to be able to say my first name and surname fluently and everyone will look at me. When of course, when I don't get it right, no one apart from me even seems to notice.

      Betony, thank you for this article, and for highlighting this important issue so widely.

  7. Comment by Rob B posted on

    Well, I am not totally sure of my observation here, but I’ll venture it anyway: I see those who stammer as being in a constant state of performing “checks and balances” on their own thinking and speaking. That is, “equilibrating”.

    So when I hear a stammerer, I really start listening!

    • Replies to Rob B>

      Comment by Betony Kelly posted on

      I know what you mean Rob - I think that people who stammer are secret assets to their teams. They often have advanced listening skills, can read a room effectively and are very good communicators. They just may not be fluent while speaking. I know I'm biased, but I think they are definitely a group worth listening too 😉

  8. Comment by Lindsay posted on

    I don't want to take anything away from this group as this is a really good idea and I suffered from a mild stammer when I was younger so know full well the prejudice that comes along with it, but maybe you could include anyone that suffers from word retrieval issues.
    My partner suffers from severe dyslexia and part of it is to do with her speech. It would be nice if people wouldn't laugh or mock, when she comes up with a wrong word that sounds similar but is totally wrong. Grammar Nazis can't help themselves.
    It means she doesn't speak up in meetings and will never willingly put herself in a position where she has to speak to big groups and if put in that position her anxiety spikes.

    • Replies to Lindsay>

      Comment by Betony Kelly posted on

      Everyone deserves the right to be listened to in a respectful manner and I'm really sorry to hear that your partner hasn't always found the kindness and understanding she deserves. We are missing out on the contribution of so many experienced and talented colleagues, if we make it hard for people to contribute orally in meetings or groups.

      It's my personal opinion, but I believe that if we foster inclusive communication approaches in teams, whether you have a stammer or simply find speaking difficult, we can uncover a wealth of good ideas and interesting views.

  9. Comment by Bruno Beckett posted on

    I have a stammer, and this stammer affects me every day to varying degrees. I'd like to say I've not let this hold me back, but I'd be lying. I'm more resilient now I'm older and now, in my forties, I'm much less bothered by how people react. Some experiences I've had over the years include being hung up on numerous times, laughed at, told to spit it out, and generally patronised - It can wear you down at times, but I like to reflect on it and I think it's helped make me stronger and has added to my resilience.

    Having children has helped, I read daily to my 2 daughters; my youngest is a developing reader (5) and my eldest (7) has a real love of books and is a bit of a bookworm. I think that a lot of their love of books comes from us reading together daily for 30 minutes or so at bedtime. As much as I struggle to read sometimes, especially when tired, I'll be very sad if/when they grow out of this.

    Thanks for keeping the profile of stammerers high, most people seem more aware of stammering these days and there are more stammerers on television, which helps too.

    • Replies to Bruno Beckett>

      Comment by Betony Kelly posted on

      Love your description of your special moments reading to your children 🙂

  10. Comment by Cathleen Schulte posted on

    Thanks for this post Betony. It's great to read about the network and good to have a contact for it. I'm in DH and also have a stammer. So if anybody in DH is reading this, and is interested in this issue and would like to share experiences, do get in touch!

    • Replies to Cathleen Schulte>

      Comment by Betony Kelly posted on

      We'd love to have you in the Civil Service Stammering Network, Cathleen. We're always looking for people in all departments willing to share their experiences, raise awareness and help others understand how to support colleagues who stammer.

  11. Comment by Stephen Foster posted on

    As a person who has a stammer I am very suprised at the attitude which still exists in the work place. I have had my stammer since childhood and received a lot of abuse at school and when I started my apprenticeship. I then decided to join the RAF at 17. A lot of my family said I was crazy but it became the making of me as I had to learn how to control my way of speaking. I now work in the Jobcentre (front facing) and have met people who have come across a lot of prejudice in the work place, being ridiculed for struggling to express their opinion can be very hurtful, a lot of my collegues do not even realise that I have a stammer. I really appreciate the work being done to support people in the workplace

    • Replies to Stephen Foster>

      Comment by Walter Scott posted on

      Stephen - that's a really useful view to see expressed. From my own experience, stammering is a ninja-like condition - it feels everywhere but nowhere at the same time, and similarly while we know that the prejudice exists, it is notoriously hard to identify, prove and tackle head-on. That said, I think it is easier to pin-down the condition now that there is a pretty strong international consensus among MRI-scanning-based studies around the world that childhood onset stammering is rooted in neurological wiring differences, but exacerbated by other influences (some of which you touch on in your comment). I think that that, in turn, can or should make it easier to face the prejudice square-on. It is interesting to hear that you work in Jobcentre - perhaps that offers a good opportunity to engage employers on this issue? Unemployment with a stammer can be nightmare situation...

  12. Comment by Charlotte Smith posted on

    I had a relative who stammered. A condition he developed during active service in WW2. So i have grown up being aware of his condition and never thought twice about it, as i accepted it as being part of who he was. However i am pleased to see this distressing condition being addressed in the workplace. An issue close to my heart.

  13. Comment by Walter Scott posted on

    Betony - brilliant; this is really valuable post which challenges the 'Conspiracy of silence' that very often surrounds this condition. As someone who has also stammered since childhood, it is really encouraging to see colleagues from across the wider Civil Service describing their experience - in ways which sound uncannily familiar! It is also very confidence-inspiring to know that Philip Rutnam is fully supportive of this new network (among many others) as Disability Champion - thank you Philip!