‘People aren’t willing to listen’: What it’s like to live with a stammer

A lack of awareness and visibility in public life means stammering is still considered to be a joke by many. Joanna Whitehead speaks to three people who stammer to discover the reality behind the myths

Sunday 02 October 2022 06:30 BST
Speaking on the telephone can be a challenge when you have a stammer
Speaking on the telephone can be a challenge when you have a stammer (Getty Images)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Steven has stammered for as long as he can remember, but his earliest memory of it being a problem was when he reached secondary school. “I had an English teacher who used to randomly pick students to read out loud,” the 24-year-old says. “As someone who stammers, I found this very, very hard.” To try and resolve the issue, Steven’s parents met their son’s teacher, asking if he could refrain from picking on him in class. His teacher insisted Steven’s stammer was “just nerves”. “[He said] if I got over the nerves, I wouldn’t stammer, which is incorrect. He continued to pick on me to read out loud.”

According to Stamma (the British Stammering Association), around 2 per cent of people – or over 113 million people worldwide – are non-fluent in verbal speech. Stammering, or stuttering as it is also known, is a neurological condition that makes it physically hard to speak. People who stammer might prolong, repeat, or get stuck on certain words or sounds, while others might display signs of visible tension as they try to get a word out. Largely affecting men – across all ethnicities – stammering bears no reflection on intellectual capacity.

Stammering Awareness Day is an annual event held on 22 October each year. It aims to raise public awareness of the issues faced by the millions of people around the world who stammer, celebrate and honour members of the stammering community, challenge discrimination and debunk myths. As with the subjects of many other annual awareness-raising days, those who stammer are keen for conversations around disfluency to occur all year. So I spoke with three young people who stammer about their own experiences and the changes they would like to see.

For many people who stammer, it’s ostensibly simple tasks that prove the most troublesome. Erin, who supports children with learning difficulties, tells me that she finds it difficult to order a coffee or buy groceries. “When it’s busy and the cashier is trying to get through lots of people, asking for a bag or saying ‘no, thank you’ to a receipt can be very challenging,” she says. “Their response can be very abrupt.”

Bel, a graduate who volunteers with Stamma, sometimes finds it painful to simply meet new people and get them to understand what it’s like to have a stammer. Patience is key. “There’s nothing worse than speaking and someone looking at you as if they don’t want to be there because you can’t get the words out,” the 24-year-old says. “It’s like, if you just gave me 10 more seconds, then I could carry on talking and it would be just fine.”

There is no cure for stammering and many in the stammering community are entirely comfortable stammering. For others, however, it can be a source of distress. “I’ve previously had a very negative opinion of my stammer and I’m not where I want to be right now in terms of how I feel about it,” Steven says. “I still think it makes life harder for me – and it affects my confidence.”

While there are therapies and interventions that can help people manage their stammer, they’re not always a permanent fix and it can sometimes return years later. Actor Emily Blunt has spoken of struggling with her speech while at school and how acting helped her with this, only for it to return when she was pregnant.

In a 2015 interview with Howard Stern on his Sirius XM radio show, she said: “When I’m on the phone, it comes back, because I think it’s that pressure to communicate only with your voice.

“[It happens] any time I feel under pressure – actually, when I was pregnant, it came back really badly. My diaphragm was so constricted. There wasn’t any space in there. I think I need to be really relaxed and calm to speak freely.”

Emily Blunt at the American Institute for Stuttering’s annual gala in 2019
Emily Blunt at the American Institute for Stuttering’s annual gala in 2019 (Getty Images)

And in a 2021 interview with YOU magazine, she said of her stammer: “It misrepresents who you are completely, so that’s all people see… because people sound funny, they look funny when they talk and it’s very readily bullied and made fun of.”

As a teenager, a schoolteacher’s suggestion that she try out for a school play, highlighting her gift for doing different kinds of voices, changed things for the future actor. She said that the opportunity gave her “a fluency I wasn’t otherwise capable of”. The 39-year-old has since described her childhood stammer as being “the making of me”.

Samuel L Jackson, Ed Sheeran, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Bruce Willis, Tiger Woods and Winston Churchill all share the experience of stammering – but perhaps one of the most high-profile figures with a stammer is US president Joe Biden, who has faced public ridicule as a result of his speech.

The 79-year-old has said that it is “critically important for [those who stutter] not to judge themselves by their speech, not let that define them”. Despite this, he continues to encounter mockery, describing the condition in 2020 as “the only handicap that people still laugh about”. A 2019 poll by YouGov supported this view, revealing that 23 per cent of UK adults felt comfortable with people making jokes about stammering.

For more people to stammer on TV and on film would be great. It would help people see that it’s not as strange as they think it is

Something that might help is better representation of stammering in film and television. “The only film that people have seen of someone who stammers is The King’s Speech, which is a fantastic film, but it seems to be the only film out there,” says Bel. “For more people to stammer on TV and on film would be great. It would help people see that it’s not as strange as they think it is. It’s just a way of speaking and it might take us longer to get out the words, but that’s absolutely fine.”

Steven agrees that media representation of people who stammer is limited – with one exception. “Have you watched Rick and Morty?” he asks me, of the hit animated sitcom. “I think they stammer, but it’s never addressed, which is amazing. That’s how it should be. In the media, stammering is often used to convey anxiety or nervousness and I think that’s a misrepresentation.”

Earlier this year, Netflix released Maya and the Three, a children’s animated series featuring a “master wizard” with a stammer. Creator Jorge R Gutiérrez said that the character Rico’s stutter “is part of who he is… and makes him a better wizard”. It’s brilliant to see, but the show remains an exception to the rule – there is still much more progress to be made in the fields of film and TV when it comes to stammers.

It would also mean that many more people with stammers could begin to see their condition, like Erin, as a “superpower” rather than a problem. “It shouldn’t be something to hide from,” she says. “Once you tell people, they can adapt to meet your needs.”

Stamma campaign calls for greater representation of stammering in media

For Steven, it’s so-called “fluent” people that can make the difference between a positive or negative experience for someone who stammers. “I think the issues that I face as a stammerer and the problems I experience aren’t actually because of my stammer; it’s a problem with people not being willing to listen,” he tells me. “We are speaking now and, yes, I’m stammering, but in my view it isn’t affecting our conversation. I would like people to be more accepting that not all people are fluent and to just be a bit more patient.”

At some point in their life, everyone stammers – that’s just life

But he also sees a contradiction in the idea of “fluent” and “non-fluent” speakers. “I’m not sure that everyone speaks 100 per cent fluently, 100 per cent of the time,” he says. “I think that even people who don’t stammer aren’t necessarily fluent – but I don’t mind that. What really annoys me is when a person matches up fluency with a communication skill. I think I can be an effective communicator even if I stammer, and I think that a fluent person can be an ineffective communicator.”

Both Erin and Bel agree that it is invaluable to spend time with other people who have stammers. “It’s so freeing,” says Bel. “It’s so nice to talk to people who know what you’re going through.” Erin notes that she finds “inspiration” among other people in the stammering community.

Bel and Erin are united in their animosity for those who finish their sentences for them, while Steven prefers people to maintain eye contact when he’s speaking. All three are in agreement, though, that stammering isn’t – and shouldn’t be – a big deal.

“I feel like at some point in their life, everyone stammers – that’s just life. It’s just that some people will stammer more and more often,” says Bel. “And it’s not because we’re scared or nervous. It’s just because it takes us a bit longer to get out the words.”

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