it's not f-f-f-funny

Stammerers are fighting back in the workplace. Michele Kirsch reports on a silent minority that has found its voice; 4 'People think that stammerers are not intelligent or are disturbed' 4
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Indy Lifestyle Online
FROM Bugs Bunny's sign-off to The Who's "My Generation," and Michael Palin's character Ken in A Fish Called Wanda, the pretend stammer can be cute, cool or funny. A real stammer is none of those things.

You could have asked Dominic Barker about it. He was a 26-year-old graduate with a stammer. He couldn't get a job. His diary entries reveal that although none of his prospective employers questioned his ability, his stammer undermined their confidence in him and, ultimately, his confidence in himself. Last year he killed himself.

One year later, the British Stammering Association (BSA) has launched a campaign to change the attitude of British employers to stammering. Nearly 1 per cent of the working population stammer - and those who have jobs may be working in positions below their potential, either because of the lack of confidence that comes with the stammer, or the stammer itself.

Tim Shanks, spokesman for the BSA, used to work on building sites, "because there was minimal talking in that". After having a type of speech therapy which focused less on getting rid of the stammer than on modifying it, his work with the BSA has him talking all the time.

There is as yet only one example of a course for stammerers in the workplace. The Military Aircraft Division of British Aerospace Defence is running a course developed in conjunction with Manchester Metropolitan University. The 12-week course also involves the stammerers' managers and co- workers, and is part of a research project that will measure not only how stam- merers get on after the course, but how the workplace responds in general.

So what is this course trying to deal with? Stammering is defined as "an invol- untary repetition, prolongation or block which interrupts the normal flow of speech". That covers what's going on technically, but it doesn't begin to decribe how the stammerer feels, particularly when faced with a non-stammering listener.

Just as there are degrees of fluency, there are degrees of listening etiquette. If it common sense not to adopt a Paxman-like "Come on, come on, get on with it" tone or finish off sentences, (although people do that, and laugh, and imitate), the stammerer's discomfort is often a reflection of our own. The BSA says, "If you're feeling uneasy, try not to show it. Use natural eye contact."

We know that fluency does not equal intelligence, so it should follow that dysfluency (stammering) does not signify a lack of intelligence. But Tim Shanks says that is one of the most common misconceptions those who speak fluently hold about those who do not.

Another misconception is that stammering is caused by nerves. And it is true that people tend to stammer more when they are nervous. But, says Louise Wright, senior lecturer at the Manchester Metropolitan University psychology and speech pathology department, the possible causes include neurophysical, linguistic, environmental and psychological.

"It could be any or all of those things. Most adult stammerers have been stammering since childhood, so they've developed a lot of negative strategies to try to help themselves, including avoidance behaviour."

This can range from swapping certain words for easier ones to avoiding having to speak entirely. "Therapy has to address all of these things," says Wright.

There are two basic approaches to speech therapy for the dysfluent. One aims at getting the sufferer speaking more fluently and the other teaches stammering more fluently.

Some people believe that when you teach someone to be fluent, all the other problems, such as anxiety and avoidance, will come right by themselves, Wright explains. Others think you need to work from the other way around, to help people come to terms with the stammer and stop fighting it, so that they stammer more freely.

Two people Louise Wright has worked with have made drastic career changes after therapy, going from industrial work to jobs which demand high levels of verbal communication - one in therapy and one in the police. But the sky's not quite the limit. Caught between diplomacy and realistic expectations, Louise Wright says that prime examples of no-go careers for stammerers are newsreading - and working as flight controllers.