Many people think of stammering as something to be dealt with alone, or at best, with a speech therapist. The workplace may seem the last place to talk about it openly. At the BSA employment campaign launch, Brent Library Service head, John Readman, described how BSA member Christine Simpson and Brent Library Service - in north west London - have not only minimised the effect stammering has on her work, but have used this process to benefit the organisation. Report by Andrew Harding.
Christine is a senior customer services officer, managing 22 staff in one library and five supervisors in other libraries. It is an important front-line position where teamwork and customer service are essential parts of the job.
Why employ someone who stammers?
Firstly, no organisation can afford to take its communication practices for granted. In a diverse society, an organisation must have staff who represent that diversity, and can relate to customers who have difficulties with communication. John said this made good commercial sense and was not only the policy of a local authority who are very committed to equalities issues.
Secondly, communication involves much more than fluent speech, or any speech. "I cannot overemphasise the importance of non-verbal communication," said John. "Factors such as listening skills and ability to empathise are vital to Brent Library Service and have little to do with fluent speech. Christine frequently achieves more in communication with customers and colleagues because of her positive and assertive approach to her stammer. This is not because people take pity on her, but about her positive approach and her skills in listening and empathising, which are vital to customer service. Whatever the circumstances, Christine will always acknowledge her stammer so that the other person is aware of the situation from the start."
As with other types of disability, making adjustments for people who stammer needs to be part of a broader understanding of an individual's needs.
"The perception that a person who stammers can't communicate effectively is largely made by those people for whom English is their first language and who find verbal communication easy," John said. "Yet there are many people for whom communication is not as simple as that who still make up our market or customer base".
Brent Library Service have adjusted their interview process where needed, so a person who stammers can give some responses in writing. While this would not be necessary for many people who stammer, John said they had made this adjustment without reducing the rigour of the selection criteria or process. On the job, the importance of teamwork and flexibility for telephone use means that while Christine uses the phone as needed, she is rarely the first point of contact. Email has opened up a new form of non-verbal communication and has made a big impact.
Stammering is not an individual issue and there is strong mutual support between Christine and her colleagues. This makes all the difference, not only in dealing with problems caused by stammering, but enabling Christine to contribute her work in ways that would not have been possible if her stammering had just been an individual issue. With a priority on teamwork and participation she has been able to strengthen the teams she has been a part of.
"I cannot overemphasise the importance of working as part of a team, and this applies equally to whether the team is three or 30," said John. "The key point for me is the added value that a person who stammers brings to the organisation by encouraging it to think about its communication practices and take a more team-based approach than before."
A person who stammers brings added value to an organisation by encouraging it to think about it's communication practices and team work.
At times, negative feedback from customers or clients is received, which is handled by the organisation recognising any problems and having a support structure in place. John said that any changes or developments that an organisation made to ensure a person who stammers could make a full contribution, would have a positive impact on the whole organisation.
"This is in terms of stronger teams, better human resources practice and in service terms, with the client or customer base," he said.
From the Autumn 2001 edition of Speaking Out