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Gareth did it ... and so can you

John McAllion | 22.09.2003

Stammering is often treated as a joke but the problem is no laughing matter for sufferers. But now there is help at hand, says former stammerer John McAllion.

It's really strange, isn't it - that people still make fun of stammering? Who can forget Gareth Gates when he started out in Pop Idol? People initially poked fun at him rather than acknowledging that here was a very courageous, very young man who was determined to overcome his own problems with speech and make the most of his talent. But Gareth had the last laugh.

Yet stammering is a problem for thousands of people in Scotland every day - with both children and adults affected. It can cause stigma. Stammering children may be bullied in the playground. Stammering adults may be ridiculed in chance encounters such as ordering in a bar or asking for information over the phone ... I should know. I had a severe stammer myself, from my earliest years until my 20s. Hence, I can well understand the frustration, embarrassment and pain caused to those afflicted. It was only in my mid 20s, when I was persuaded to seek help from a speech and language therapist, that I began to get my stammering under control and started to lead a 'normal' life.

Don't get me wrong, not everyone who stammers views it as a problem. There are many people for whom stammering is a minor inconvenience or something of an irrelevance. Most of the time now I am fortunate to be in this position. And as Gareth has shown, having a stammer need not hold anyone back in life. Yet, all too often it does.

The British Stammering Association, of which I am a patron, seeks to promote awareness of stammering; to offer support to all whose lives are affected by stammering; to identify and promote effective therapies and to initiate and support research into stammering. It operates an information and support service, a website, a postal library, a directory of self help and therapy groups and several telephone support groups. It produces a quarterly magazine, 'Speaking Out', and holds open days, special events and an annual conference that is attended by people who stammer, their relatives and interested professionals. The BSA has run a series of well respected projects aimed at specific issues such as promoting early referral, highlighting best practice in speech and language therapy and training teachers in how best to support a stammering pupil in class. BSA has identified that one of the greatest difficulties people who stammer experience is a profound sense of isolation and it seeks to address this through its many activities that bring people together and put people in touch with each other. In my view, this sense of isolation is only likely to be heightened in Scotland, particularly in rural areas where the population is thinly scattered. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many people in Scotland who stammer, and parents of stammering children, have not met anyone else who shares their problem and specialist speech therapy for stammering is extremely limited. An analysis of approximately 7,500 enquiries to the BSA Information and Support Service has shown that only 4.5% of enquiries came from Scotland, hence the 8.5% of the UK population resident north of the border are substantially under represented amongst callers. It seems while BSA is recognised as a valuable UK wide resource, awareness of its existence just hasn't penetrated much of Scotland.

For these reasons, I am delighted to support current plans to set up a new Scottish Branch of the BSA - BSA Scotland - that will endeavour to highlight stammering and offer services relevant to our specific concerns, here in Scotland. On 4 October 2003, the BSA is holding an open meeting in Edinburgh to consult with people who stammer, parents of stammering children and Scottish speech and language therapists regarding the sort of organisation we might want. I am writing this article to encourage those affected by stammering to come along and speak out. The BSA wants to encourage participation at all levels (through engaging people in the consultation process, volunteering, fund-raising and forming a Scottish Steering Group) - and to encourage local ownership of the Scottish Branch.

I have called for a Scottish Branch ever since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1997. Health and voluntary sector services north of the border are becoming not only progressively more particular to Scotland but also more closely related to the local communities where they are to be delivered. And the lack of a BSA Scotland to date has meant that, whilst other Scottish-based voluntary sector groups have taken full advantage of the Scottish Democratic System, people in Scotland who stammer have not been adequately represented. The new BSA Scotland will be better placed to influence the policies of the Scottish Parliament. It will also allow us to instigate campaigns, projects and services appropriate to Scotland.

A lot of hard work has gone into developing this proposal already and I commend the work of Scottish activists and the Lloyds TSB Foundation for Scotland which has funded expert consultancy through its capacity building programme to get this initiative off the ground.

In conclusion, I'd like to see a vibrant Scottish organisation in which the strong, the vulnerable, the young and the grown unite alongside one another, to lend and receive support, and give voice to the hopes and needs of those who stammer in Scotland. The new BSA Scotland could go a long way towards this end - but only if people who stammer come forward to claim it as their own.

John McAllion is a patron of the British Stammering Association and a former Member of Parliament and Member of the Scottish Parliament.

This article was published in 2003 in the Edinburgh Evening News.