We live in politically correct times. Every difference must be incorporated into the homogeneous whole. Every obnoxious, recalcitrant school-age child must be kowtowed to and understood. Provision must be made for every disability in and outside the workplace. The disabled grace our screens in an attempt to normalise the wheelchair; normalise physical deformity; normalise those that fall outside society’s norms. And thank the….. (whoever we Atheists give thanks to) that things have slowly changed.
As Jim Carrey frequently said (in Bruce Almighty)
Yes IT’S GOOOOD!!!’, except it isn’t all good. Have you ever seen a TV presenter with a stammer? Have you ever been greeted by a receptionist with a stammer? Have you been cold-called by a stammerer? Did your teacher stammer? How many people in your workplace stammer?
I stammer and therefore I am; by which I mean, I’m pretty much defined by the way I speak (or try to speak.) I’m lucky though because the rest of me ‘works’ – I can see, walk, hear and run (at a push) and yet a sometimes severe speech hesitancy has effectively controlled and informed the way I live my entire life.
Stammering is a difficult one. Most stammerers look normal – and some look like movie stars: Bruce Willis, Samuel L Jackson, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill, Emily Blunt, James Earl Jones (ironically in possession of one of the most celebrated voices on the planet) all stammered but, unlike the rest of the non-hollywood stammering club, they managed a miraculous cure.
Emily Blunt works with the American Institute for Stuttering. Her stammer (or stutter in American) surfaced at the age of 7/8, becoming problematic at age 12/13 (mine followed the exact same pattern) before ending completely in her teenage years (mine didn’t) when a teacher suggested she try acting, in particular adopting a different accent, as a way of controlling her impediment – and it worked. But those childhood years, when she was rendered almost mute (James Earl Jones did become mute) by her speech impediment, made a lasting impression on the actress, spurring her on to help those still afflicted well into adulthood.
The fact that Emily Blunt chooses to discuss stammering at all is a revelation, because stammering is not talked about in the media and the number one reason it’s not talked about is that the people afflicted lack the ability to talk about it.
Imagine dreading almost every situation where you are required to answer simple, basic questions via the spoken word. A couple of days ago I was painting the bedroom walls, content and happy (except for the nagging worry of forthcoming routine mammogram results, but that’s a whole other post.) I was happy because physical labour requires zero communication skills. Mid-paint and the door knocked. A courier, delivering a package for next door. Would I take the package and what’s my surname? In a split second I went from calm person who paints to a deer caught in the headlights. My surname begins with a consonant, and I block severely on the hard consonants. I had to tell him my surname, he was ready and waiting, proffering the digital signing thingy as he spoke. Briefly I toyed with the idea of pretending to be deaf, or dumb, or even inventing a new surname, one that preferably began with a vowel – and then I tried to speak. He thought he’d misheard. ‘Sorry, I didn’t get that’, he said, whilst I gradually lost all eye contact. I tried again. He repeated the name as it sounded to him; ‘n-n-n-no, s-s-s-sorry, it’s …..’ I said, trying again, with an effort more usually reserved for weight lifting. After several seconds (which seemed like an eternity) he heard the correct name, I signed and he left. I closed the door. Standing in the hallway I breathed normally again and told myself that it didn’t matter what strangers think of me; that a stammer is not a serious disease; that at least I’m not one of those fleeing refugees. But in that previous, brief moment of acute shame and embarrassment, none of those reasons seemed to matter.
But a stammer can be serious. Ok, it doesn’t kill you, unless you decide to kill yourself. Dominic Barker, a 26 year old with two degrees killed himself in 1994 after an interviewer told him he would never get a job unless he cured himself; you know, like the wheelchair users could walk again if only they put their minds to it. Ok, you don’t have to take dangerous drugs to control it but its effects are insidious and, in many cases, it can and does ruin the potential of someone’s life.
Run through any series of job adverts, in any field you care to choose, and a theme will become apparent. Must have excellent communication skills is the war cry of every job search page. Maybe you’ve got your degree, maybe even a PhD. Maybe you’re the smartest, most full of talent person on the planet, but you lack the one thing the workplace environment values the most – COMMUNICATION SKILLS – because you stammer dammit.
It would be lovely to mention the stammer during the, mostly, online application process, because telling people you stammer beforehand lessens the embarrassment, lessens the shock-factor, lessens the having to explain why you’re coming over as something from a freak show. And nowadays the telephone interview has become part of the overall selection process; even when applying for internships lasting roughly 6 weeks. Could they have invented a more hellish selection process for the stammerer than one that relies solely on the sound of your voice?
But admitting you stammer on an application form is not easy because, uniquely, a stammer is seen as somehow your fault. This disabling speech problem is not seen as a disability at all. If you just pulled yourself together you’d be the life and soul of the fluent-speak party. Heck even those who stammer feel it’s their fault – despite the fact that recent research has shown that stammering is almost always genetic. That most stammering runs in families and does not indicate a psychological problem, or a childhood trauma, or an inability to cope with life. That most stammerers are perfectly normal, well-adjusted people. The speech part of their brains just processes speech in a different, less efficient way than the non-stammering population.
More depressingly, research also shows that stammerers earn significantly less than non-stammerers, because those who are well educated can be found in more ‘menial’ jobs where excellent communication skills are not the first requirement.
But I stammer so I must have a serious character flaw (I’m prone to thinking) when there’s no obvious physical or neurological reason for this inability to speak. Maybe I’m a weak person – I must be because I can’t do something as simple as stopping stammering. Beneath the fact of the stammer lies all this low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence, brought on by the stammer. Anxiety does not cause a stammer (as many people seem to think) – the stammer generates the anxiety. In other areas of my life I will be confident where others would fear to tread. I will sing in public. I will write job applications for friends that I know will guarantee them a job interview. I will edit essays, knowing that I CAN DO THIS. I will press ‘publish’ on these posts for the blog that no one reads, even ones that contain rubbishy works of art, only hesitating for a moment.
But combine a stammer with anxiety (stammering and social anxiety walk pretty much hand in hand) and I feel a constant need to apologise to everybody for the fact that my mouth doesn’t seem to co-ordinate with my brain. To apologise for the fact that they’re having to wait for me to get my words out, that I’ve interrupted the flow of a group conversation, that I can’t do something that everyone else on the entire planet does without thinking, and with ease.
‘Try singing it instead,’ someone said to me a couple of months ago. I didn’t mind this advice except for the fact that it was given ‘in my face’, in a group setting at a volume that everyone could comfortably hear, causing silence to fall and all eyes to rest on ME. So I smiled and let it go, even though all I wanted to say was: ‘Is singing everything really an answer? Do you really think going through life like you’re in the Sound of Music is going to work?’
‘Why do you stammer?’ some people will ask – like I have a choice in the matter. ‘Do you have brain damage?’ one GP practice nurse asked, in the kind of slow, emphatic way people sometimes use to speak to the deaf or to someone who’s not all there. Whilst being fitted for glasses the optician asked my name, not bothering to look up. Whilst I silently blocked, attempting to get my name out, he suddenly said ‘what’s the matter are you deaf? and finally looked at me. Wondering how a deaf person would have reacted to his non-caring and impatient manner, I carried on trying to get the words out; trying to be normal, trying to fit in, trying not to slap him across his uncaring face.
After university (another stammering nightmare) I obviously had to work; had to do something with my life so I became a secretary. This was in the days when people were employed to type, take shorthand etc. For 3 years I did office admin stuff (happily because filing, typing letters etc doesn’t require speech.) But sometimes I had to answer the phone.
For the average stammerer the phone is a tool of the Devil. The fear I felt when left alone in the office with The Phone was palpable. In those moments the room would shrink down so that the only visible thing in the place was the loomingly large, black office phone.
Unable to concentrate on anything else I would sit there waiting for the thing to ring. Waiting in a cold sweat because I knew I couldn’t say the obligatory company name when answering the phone. This inability led one Manager, unfortunate enough to get me on the phone, to ring my boss and demand that I be sacked immediately as stuttering maniacs weren’t part of the company’s image. My reaction to this was to go in the next day, looking much smarter than I usually did, and confront my boss with the news that I didn’t stammer on purpose, I didn’t do it to make the company look bad and that this Manager was wrong to call for my enforced redundancy for something that was beyond my control. But the stammer was a problem. Frequently I found myself facing discrimination in the workplace for something I couldn’t help; like the person who can’t help being in a wheelchair; the person who can’t help that they’re feeling like ending it all; the person who can’t help that he’s dyslexic, deaf or blind.
And every night would be spent lying in bed worrying about all the following days activities that required speech in the workplace, causing a knot of anxiety in my stomach and an inability to sleep.
But that was 28 years ago; maybe things have changed. And most people were accommodating. Most people are NICE when confronted with the stammer. They’ll offer to finish my words for me; or ask if it’s ok to finish my words for me. They’ll tell me to slow down, that maybe my brain is going too fast for my mouth (some stammerers don’t like this approach, it doesn’t bother me.) They won’t look away. They’ll maintain eye contact whilst I struggle for breath and the words. And sometimes they’ll tell me they barely notice my stammer anymore, even though I know that’s not true.
And I’m lucky, very lucky. I have a caring husband (it still amazes me that somebody was willing to take on somebody with a stammer.) I left work to look after our children and he never once brought up the fact that he was now the sole breadwinner, because he knew how difficult being a stammerer in the outside world had been. He makes all our phone calls, orders my meals in restaurants, sometimes answers for me when meeting new people.
And I know that we’re all supposed to face our fears and just get on with it but, unfortunately, I’m a giver-upper, a quitter, a throw-the-towel-in-because-I’ve-had-enough kind of person. And sometimes it’s just easier to get by with a little help from our friends.
Stammering is a frustrating problem. Sometimes, inexplicably, the words just flow. Sometimes the effort to speak is so great that you just give up. Modern technology has been a godsend. Texting, email, messaging and Skype have saved my a-a-a-awkward, s-s-s-stammering life. I can book and buy stuff online, without using the dreaded phone. I can text friends and acquaintances. I can Skype my sons and bore them with fluent, inane, motherly chatter.
And I’m pretty sure that the reason I write, and the reason I love writing is because I stammer. The written word flows. There’s no hesitancy, no disruption, no embarrassment, no shame. The words trip off the pen – or the keyboard. Writing is freedom and writing is power.
This connection between stammering and the written word must be no coincidence. The list of authors who stammered is long and surprising:
Philip Larkin (who also happened to be the librarian at my university)
Would a cancer sufferer/victim of racism/refugee fleeing a war torn country/those confined to a wheelchair swap places with a stammerer? Probably and in a heartbeat.
E-e-everyone has pro-pro-problems. Maybe s-s-s-stammering is not such a s-s-s-serious pro-pro-problem after all. It j-j-j-just s-s-s-s-sometimes feels like it is.
(give me a moment and I’ll try singing that instead.)