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A silent minority

Julia Ammon | 01.04.2010

The unique challenges faced by women who stammer are underappreciated, suggests Julia Ammon.

Statistics show that there is around one female to every four males who stammer as adults. Speech and language therapist, Rachel Everard, who is a woman who stammers, has noted that spontaneous recovery may be a factor. "Research shows that almost an equal number of young boys and girls start stammering, however, for some reason, a lot more little girls seem to spontaneously recover."

There is little information on the unique challenges faced by adult women who stammer. Simply, women who stammer seem to face all the everyday challenges of being female, while also dealing with the added difficulties which come with being a person who stammers.

As women, we all know the difficulties that come with our gender; probably most notably having to deal with our monthly menstrual cycles. We are aware that our emotional and physical state can be ruled by our monthly cycles but what effects does it have on our speech? In people who stammer, often their frequency or degree of stammering can be affected by their physical or emotional state. According to John Harrison's 'stuttering hexagon', stammering is not only a physical act but rather an interactive system which involves our physical behaviours, emotions, perceptions, beliefs, intentions and physiological responses.

However, research has shown that even for women who do not stammer, the emotional and physical effects of menstruation can have an influence on speech. Speech disfluencies in all the women studied, both those who stammered and those who did not, were greater during pre-menstruation and were fewer during ovulation. The feelings of increased anxiety during pre-menstruation and the surge in confidence during ovulation were seen as contributing factors in this difference. (Silverman, 1975) This underlines the role which biological factors play in speech.

Gender roles

Another way in which women who stammer are adversely challenged is related to gender roles. Until the latter part of the 20th century, women were less likely to work outside the home and were more likely to maintain a supportive role in relationships. In regards to stammering, this traditional role allowed females who stammered to perhaps avoid speaking situations and become dependent on their partners to speak. In this way, women may have been able to hide their stammer from others, but still had negative inner thoughts regarding stammering.

Similarly, the role of mother may also have an emotional impact on women who stammer. As the primary caregiver, they may worry about how their speech will impact their children. Often there is the underlying fear that their children will develop a stammer. Although stammering does seem to cluster in families, where a parent has a stammer it is still unlikely that any of their children would stammer. I believe this is the most paramount concern for any parent who has a stammer no matter what their gender.

Lastly, in addition to the pressures felt by women in traditional roles, women who stammer also face career challenges. A survey conducted on over 200 people who stammer showed that 70% felt that having a stammer decreases one's chances of being hired or promoted. (Hood, 2004)

Women who stammer face the double whammy of not only having a stammer, but also feeling the same career pressures as other women in male dominated working environments. As one woman I spoke with said, "Women who stammer may seem more of a risk to some employers and therefore may be less likely to be promoted compared to her male counterpart." Perhaps for this reason, women who stammer seem to have a tendency to go into professions which are primarily female dominated and help others, such as speech therapy and teaching. (Kari Kelso, 2002)

Whether as a career or just volunteering, women who stammer seem to take on an active role in helping others in stammering treatments. I believe that helping others in this way empowers women who stammer, and people who stammer in general, to pursue their goals in all aspects of life. Personally, I am an active member of the McGuire Programme.

Although women who stammer are a minority within a minority, in more ways than one, they need not be silent. By helping others and promoting awareness we can have our voices heard and bring about change.

This article is based on one written by Julia for the pinkvox website.

From the Spring 2010 issue of Speaking Out, page 16.

References:
Silverman, E. M. (1975). Speech fluency fluctuations during the menstrual cycle. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research, 18, 202-206;
Hood, J. F. (2004). The impact of stuttering on employment opportunities and job performance. Journal of Fluency Disorders, 29 (4), 255-273.