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Right - I'll prove them wrong!

Tony Stewart | 01.09.2006

Tony Stewart describes how he progressed from installation technician to professor of public health, starting with a rude manager.

Lecture theatreIn 1993, I wrote in this magazine about my experiences of stammering in the workplace. Up to that time, I had blatantly been denied promotion in the service industry because of my stammer, then demoted when it re-appeared after being in remission for a while. My employers told me quite clearly that stammering and a management position could not mix. This well known international organisation (still in business today) felt that my stammer would present a poor image of the company to its customers. So aged 29, I was removed from my junior executive position and given a job as an installation technician. My salary was halved, and future prospects looked distinctly bleak. Stammering at job interviews made it difficult for me to find alternative work, so I stayed on until my local office was closed down, resulting in redundancy. But things began to improve. I had been offered a new post within the NHS, helping GPs and other health care professionals to evaluate the quality of their work. Unbelievably, I was successful at interview, despite stammering so severely that I was practically incomprehensible.

Career-wise it was a completely fresh start. I had no real qualifications. However, my line manager suggested I do a certificate in health services management, and provided some funding and time to study. My job gradually became even more interesting, and I was eventually made a manager. After being transferred to the public health department I was again encouraged and helped to enrol on a Master of Public Health degree (MPH), This introduced me to the world of medical research and epidemiology, which I found utterly fascinating. Upon graduating with my MPH, the university offered me a job as a researcher carrying out systematic reviews of evidence for new medical technologies. This work gave me some enormously valuable practical skills in epidemiology.

I subsequently applied and to my amazement was offered a post in a different university to develop a new MPH course. My new boss was also supportive in my concerns about giving lectures. "Don't worry", she replied, "it's rather endearing". To be honest, I did not feel sufficiently competent to take on this challenge, but with hard work and plenty of luck, a course was successfully launched. I informed my first lecture theatre that some unexpected gyrations or facial contortions may occur, and these would be caused by a stutter rather than any other habit. And so for several years I stuttered profusely during lectures, but no-one appeared to laugh, and amazingly no complaints were made.

I informed my first lecture theatre that some unexpected gyrations or facial contortions may occur, and these would be caused by a stutter rather than any other habit

Later, to update my practical skills I re-joined the NHS in my current role as a specialist in public health, combining public health practice with academia, thanks to the professorship in epidemiology that I now hold.

So, installation technician to professor - that's not a bad career progression, is it? Of course, none of this would have happened without the many opportunities I have been given by people who saw through the stammer and believed in me.

By far the most important event since 1993 is that I have become a father, and have two gorgeous and exuberant children aged 6 and 11. They find the stutter a little quirky, but do not make fun of it. One intriguing point is that my family and several students tell me that they no longer notice my stammer. Indeed, it is significant that I have never come across anyone within either the NHS or acadaemia who appears to have a problem with my stammer - a very different situation to my experience in industry.

We stammerers all have potential, but people sometimes want to make us feel inferior

I didn't write this article to make me sound like a lucky chap. We stammerers all have potential, but people sometimes want to make us feel inferior. When I was 18, a women, whose rudeness I am told was justified by her occupying a 'position of trust' at work, told me that with a stammer I would could never aspire to anything beyond a basic manual job. I have taken pride in spending the past 27 years defying her! We must believe in ourselves and be strong in our determination to break through these barriers. Then, with luck, we can triumph and conquer the flames of bigotry.

From the Autumn 2006 edition of Speaking Out, page 13