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Never off the phone

John Thompson | 01.03.2008

By John Thompson

I work for JobCentre Plus, dealing with people's benefit claims over the phone. My stammer is relatively mild - it might not be a job for those at the severe end of the stammering spectrum.

I deal with people in all sorts of emotional states, which can be demanding on anyone doing the job, never mind how it can impact on a stammer. Phone calls are long, on average about 45 minutes but sometimes more. It includes dealing through interpreters with those who don't speak English very well - those calls can lasts 90 minutes, or even 2 hours!!

There's a routine procedure when you start setting up someone's claim on the computer. At a certain point after a few minutes I say: "Just one thing, I do mention this to everyone, you will have noticed that I stammer. If at any time you have difficulty understanding me it's perfectly all right to ask me to repeat it." As a result of saying that, I've often been moved by some of the things customers have said to me: "I think you're very brave" etc, and it comes from both the young and the not so young.

Although so many people know little about stammering, most people are decent. I've had the classic situations of people chuckling at first and saying, "You had to think where you were for a moment/you forgot your name for a moment, didn't you," etc and 'dear old' "The line is breaking up a bit." I then explain that it's because I stammer. People then usually apologise and I make light by saying, "It's okay, I do understand that, I'd like £1 for every time it happens." If people chuckle but say nothing, I will still explain that I stammer and they usually then apologise.

Occasionally there are people who are abusive or who think stammering is comical. I advise them that I'm not obliged to take insults and that I can just put the phone down. I put the phone down on one person who asked if they could speak to someone else. Whenever I've done that I've always advised my line manager explaining exactly why in case there is any comeback and they've always been supportive.

My targets were reduced slightly because of the stammer, but since then my line managers have admitted it probably wasn't necessary. It's been commented on in appraisals how well I handle my stammer both from my own and the customer's point of view, and that I perform so well even with it.

The job appears to be good speech therapy for me. I've noticed a fair reduction in my stammering over the 2 years I've been doing it. While it has helped me on the phone generally, the work calls are easier as there are standard things we say and questions we ask continuously. I do tend to stammer more when making private, often social, phone calls to people I know well when the conversation is more of the cuff.

From the Spring 2008 issue of 'Speaking Out', page 13