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Don't mention the stammer!

Louise Wright | 01.12.2004

Knowing how your stammer affects you and how it might affect others is the first step to talking about it openly, explains Louise Wright.

This article is based on workshops I ran at the BSA conference that enabled people to share their experiences of talking about stammering to friends and family members.

Like most speech and language therapists I advocate that people who stammer talk openly about their stammer in order to reduce anxiety about stammering - both for themselves and their listener.

During 25 years of stammering therapy my experience of encouraging disclosure of stammering has been mainly positive. I have involved line managers and colleagues in therapy to help open up the subject of stammering in the workplace and involved families of adults who stammer to ensure maximum understanding and support after therapy.

At the City Lit Institute in London I offered special sessions for friends and family of those attending the weekly therapy groups. Out of three therapy groups, only one person wanted to invite a family member or friend to the sessions on offer. Surprised, I realised I needed to understand more about the complexities of involving family and friends in the therapy process. I therefore interviewed four of the group members who did not want to involve their friends or family to find out more.

The four interviewees were aged between 23 and 38 and all were in work and in steady relationships. The interviews lasted up to one and a half hours. Using qualitative research methods I listened to the interview tapes over and over, picking out themes that were shared by the four interviewees.

1. Diversity of disclosure

The four interviewees talked about their stammer differently to different people. Some talked with their families but not to friends and others vice versa. Some talked to some friends and not others - one felt upset about lying to his best friend to hide his stammer. The interviewees were very different to each other. Some could talk to their parents and not to friends, others found their parents the hardest to talk with.

2. Being forced into disclosing the stammer

The interviewees talked about feeling forced into telling others at some time about their stammer - usually when either their work or a relationship was at risk because they were hiding their stammer. However one woman talked about ending relationships whenever she felt she would have to open up about her stammer.

3. Avoidance as dishonesty or lying

Three out of the four used the words 'lying' or 'being dishonest' with others as a way of avoiding disclosure. These are powerful words and help us to understand how hiding a stammer can impact on relationships.

4. Reactions of others to disclosure

When the participants did disclose their stammer, people reacted in many different ways. The reactions of others affected whether the person who stammered continued to talk about their stammer. It was easiest to talk with friends who reacted in an interested way. However some friends reacted in a negative way because they hadn't been told sooner. Two of the interviewees were frustrated because their parents simply denied that their stammer existed.

Even if friends or family were interested in talking about stammering, some still found it hard to understand

Even if friends or family were interested in talking about stammering, some still found it hard to understand. One interviewee found it easier to explain stammering following therapy because he understood his stammer better and could explain it more clearly to his partner. He felt this helped his partner to be more supportive - something that he had not experienced with previous partners.

Listening to shared experiences at the conference confirmed the need for speech and language therapists to listen to each person's unique story to better understand the complexities of disclosing stammering to family and friends.

To read quotes from the interviews, go to Louise's Workshop handout for the BSA 2004 conference.

Louise Wright is a specialist speech and language therapist in the West of Cornwall Primary Care Trust and BSA Trustee.

From the Winter 2004 edition of Speaking Out