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How to succeed at university if you stammer

Rammesh Summan | 01.09.2007

It is September, a new academic year, and time to start university. It can also be a scary time when you wonder what is going to happen. As a graduate who stammers, Ramesh Summan writes this article for students who stammer and their parents about the support available at university.

UniversityDuring their course, every student needs support or advice at some time or other. This article focuses on applying for a course, your legal rights, The admissions process, oral assessments, student support, and what to do if you think you have been subject to discrimination because of your stammer.

First, a word of encouragement. Universities are not like school. They have more of an adult feel, everyone needs to make new friends and other students are usually more accepting of your stammer. Going out and speaking to people and showing an interest in them will open doors and make university life much more fun.

I found that people didn't care if you stammered, just that you were good to hang out with.

"I found that people didn't care if you stammered, just that you were good to hang out with," said one student. "Someone came up to me and said that I was the first person they knew who stammered. It was a novelty for me and for him."

This important point has been highlighted by many graduates who stammer who have been in touch with me while researching this article.

Before applying - disability

Stammering is increasingly (although not always) recognised in law as a disability. There is a big difference between having a disability as defined by law, and being, or feeling disabled by it. There is no duty on a student to disclose a disability when applying for a course. However, under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA) [now Equality Act 2010], education providers are expected to take steps to find out if a student has a disability and what assistance the student might need. They must not unlawfully discriminate against a student. You will be taken seriously if you mention your stammer on the UCAS application, because disability questions are now a widely used mechanism to find out which students might need extra support.

Universities would like you to disclose that you have a stammer so that they can help you when you start the course and if necessary, plan a strategy to meet your needs by offering reasonable adjustments (more on these later).

Although university staff may not know very much about stammering, the important point to remember is that they want you to succeed on your course and will offer a wide range of support - it is there for the asking.

Applications and admissions

Help is readily available when applying for the course and throughout your time at university. Staff working in higher education are trained in helping students with a disability.

Universities admission departments I have spoken to whilst researching this article such as the University of East London and Loughborough University claim to show good practice for students disclosing their disability. They say there is no place for discriminating against students with a disability and that student admissions are solely focused on the student's academic qualities.

To give a student an equal chance of showing that they have the right skills and abilities, universities are normally required to make reasonable changes to any procedures that place the student at a disadvantage, due to their disability. If you want to ask for more time in course interviews, course presentations, other oral work, or for alternative ways of giving a presentation, it is better to do this at the start. But don't worry. Universities still have an obligation to adjust course assessments where appropriate if you ask for these once you are on the course. Indeed, universities often have obligations even without you asking.

When applying, the key point is to be able to demonstrate your competency to do the course. If there is some form of pre-course assessment and you are worried about any effects of your stammer, speak to the admissions staff about reasonable adjustments to the assessment procedures. Reasonable adjustments are when a university supports a student with a disability, by altering normal practices or providing services to assist them in carrying out the requirements of their studies. These could include: being given extra time to complete a test, having a person to assist with speaking during a test, or being able to give answers in writing. What adjustment is reasonable can depend on what is being assessed, for example is it specifically oral skills, or is it the required knowledge and ability to learn? However, DDA rules on 'competence standards' give scope to challenge whether there is a good enough reason for what is being assessed. For example should oral skills be tested here, and is it legitimate for 'fluency' to be one of the assessment criteria?

Oral assessment

Oral assessments are becoming common practice within higher education, as course supervisors have looked to broaden the focus of assessments. Oral assessments are common practice within subject areas such as business, law and medicine, where they can make up a reasonable percentage of a module - which in reality means the passing or failing of a module.

However, do not despair as there is help available at universities with oral assessments. If you are concerned about these, speak with your personal tutor or course tutor. A further source of support is the disability officer who is normally based in the student services department. Many universities have a specialist disabilities adviser, who is a useful person to contact if you are concerned about your stammer holding you back either socially or with study.

The disability officer can discuss your difficulties with oral assessments with you and your tutor, then find ways to help. Examples could include more time to give an oral assessment, alternative modes of assessment such as doing oral assessment in forms of a written assessment and a personal assistant to aid you with the oral assessment or indeed any reasonable adjustment that you and the university find that is appropriate to your requirements and to those of the course. Again, there are special rules on how far it is legitimate to assess a particular competence standard, if it disadvantages students who stammer.

When support is not given

If there is a time when you feel that you are being discriminated against due to your stammer - such as not receiving the right amount of time to do an oral assessment or a lack of support from a tutor at some stage of the course, the best thing to do is to talk openly about the problem with your personal tutor, or a departmental tutor.

Universities have formal procedures for a student to raise a problem that they do not feel has been properly supported or resolved. While procedures differ from institution to institution, the student union is often the first place to get help for a problem that you don't feel able to resolve with your tutors. Discuss what you need and what has or has not been done thus far. The student union could then speak with the disability officer. The disability officer will then speak to your school of study to address the problem. If the problem still continues after these talks you then have the right to inform the university or college principal. If your complaint cannot be resolved internally, a possible alternative to going to court.

Conclusion

Concerns about whether your stammer will affect your university life are normal. It is a new experience well away from your comfort zone. It is also an opportunity to discover a new life, new friends and yes, to face new fears. Universities recognise all of this and have a wide range of services to support you - from housing to health - which are there to help you adjust to university life and succeed in your studies. They want you to do well in your course - there is probably more support than you think - and support is there if you ask for it.

Through speaking to recent graduates who stammer and through my own experiences, I can say that this will be the best time of your life as you make new friends and enjoy new activities and learning.

Further information

Disclaimer: Particularly on legal issues, this article is only intended as a general summary and is not a substitute for appropriate professional advice in any individual case. Also there may be differences in Northern Ireland.

From the Autumn 2007 issue of 'Speaking Out', pages 10-11