Don't hesitate to improve the career prospects of a stammerer

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The watered-down version of the Disability Discrimination Bill, expected to become law before the end of the year, has already been widely attacked by disability organisations as toothless and narrow. For Britain's estimated half a million stammerers (1 per cent of the population), it is likely to provide even less comfort than for those with more obvious disabilities.

Many stammerers are loath to classify hesitant speech as a disability, but employers openly admit using it as a main reason for rejection irrespective of other skills. A survey by the British Stammering Association found 27 per cent of its members had been told their speech was the reason for non-promotion, while surveys in the US, Canada and Australia found similar high levels of discrimination.

It is a truism that the work problems faced by people with disabilities come as much from employers' negative attitudes as from the disability itself, with prejudicial and ignorant judgements constantly made about capabilities. Such negative perceptions often lead to stammerers deliberately underperforming at work due either to lack of self-confidence or a desire not to draw attention to themselves.

Now, however, British Aerospace is about to tackle the problems faced by stammerers among its 15,000 employees, with what is believed to be the first in-house therapy course of its kind in Britain, beginning this month. BAe prides itself on being an "investor in people" centred on "needs- driven" personnel policies, and it was the Personal Development Plans that all BAe employees are asked to complete that alerted the company to the difficulties faced by its stammering employees.

Though improving the workplace communication skills of the stammerer is a major element of the course, developing the working relationship with other employees is equally important. To this end, one colleague of the stammerer as well as the line manager will also take part, in an effort to improve what Louise Wright, a consultant specialising in speech problems, calls "the culture of the organisation".

BAe's realisation that corporate and individual attitudes can lead to a loss of motivation and under-performance by employees with disabilities is welcome. The consistent under-employment of people with disabilities is not only a waste of individual talent but also a significant loss of revenue for the country.

The British reliance on the formal interview to fill vacancies is another hurdle for stammerers, since the stress put on verbal presentation often leads to their speech deteriorating. The tragic case of Dominic Barker is a painful illustration of the problem. Despite having a masters degree in agricultural economics, he was constantly rejected at interview solely because of his speech. "Lose the stammer and we'll give you a job," he was told. "I can't go on downgrading my expectations. I need the achievement," wrote Mr Barker last year. He then committed suicide.

Fear of rejection, as well as poor career advice, leads many stammerers to see whole spheres of employment as off-limits, leading many to drift into basic clerical work. The truth is that there are few jobs where stammering is a genuine bar. Stammerers shouldn't perhaps try for air traffic control or racing commentary, but why not everything else?

Norman Miller

The author was one of the speakers at yesterday's launch of the British Stammering Association's employment campaign.