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Talking about stammering - in the Palace of Westminster!

| 19.10.2016

Here are three of the speeches given by people who stammer, both children and adults at the Stammering Network event in Speaker's House on October 17th. We also have some great feedback from the Mum of a ten-year old who attended the event.

Olly:

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen

I started stammering when I could start to speak and that’s just what I did and everyone knew that was what I did.  My wonderful parents and step parents managed to get me a really helpful speech therapy person called Alison and she was really nice and she helped me a lot with my confidence. 

We got a message from her that I had been invited to go to a therapy group with all the other children who stammered and I thought it would be a really good chance to know that I am not the only one who stammers.

Speech therapy has helped me so much coz not only has it helped me with my stammer it also has helped me be the person I am and make me have  more confidence.  I would also like to say that I am very happy that you are all here today because it will give you a good chance to listen to a boy who stammers. 

When we went to the therapy group I thought it was a really really good place to learn about how to deal with stammers and to listen to other kids who have that problem as well. So it was only a little speech but I just want to thank you all for listening and I hope you have a really good evening.

Thank you very much I would happily ask answer any questions.


Walter:

Well thank you, Olly. That is quite an act to follow. But as I am marginally older than you, I want to take you all back 14 years to 2002 – to January to be precise. It was 3am in morning and I was sat at the end of my bed, staring out of the window up at the moon, with bad insomnia, and in my heart was the worst kind of fear, dread and paranoia. I had graduated four or five years before, been elected chairman of my students union and other things, and I had a good degree.

But I was still in low-paid, temporary work, while my friends were all doing stratospheric things in their careers and enjoying meaningful relationships, while I was utterly unable to get through the graduate interviews.

And as I sat there, staring up at the moon, I could imagine a conversation between various employers who had decided to take my application no further because I stammered – several big ticket City employers, some quango in the north east of England offering a secondment, and the Army scholarship recruitment scheme, to be honest, when I was 18 – and various ‘authority figures’ from my two boarding schools who had expressed disapproval of how I spoke – a matron, a headmaster, and several teachers.

And between them they were all endorsing what they had said or decided over the years, and that thought made me feel deeply frightened and very isolated. And I actually quit my job that day and went to my GP, and my GP gave a prescription for Prozac and as I was leaving his surgery I remember him saying ‘Oh, one last thing – have you heard of the British Stammering Association?’. Well through no fault of yours, Norbert, I had not, but I rang them as soon as I got home, and suffice it to say that the prescription for Prozac went straight in the bin, and two weeks later I found myself at the City Lit in the company of 10 or 11 other young people who stammered, and quite simply the best speech and language therapy team that any young person in that position could have hoped to find.

but I rang the BSA as soon as I got home, and suffice it to say that the prescription for Prozac went straight in the bin

We learnt about the thinking of Charles Van Riper and of the great Joe Sheehan, giants of 20th century speech pathology. We were filmed speaking into a camera and it was played back to us and we began to explore the incredible physical dynamics of our speech articulators, something I had never even vaguely considered. We were kitted out from a ferocious armoury of speech modification techniques, and in twos and threes we went out into the streets of Holborn and challenged each into ever more difficult speaking situations, all part of the process of tackling avoidance behaviours and desensitisation to the facts of stammering. That was an important few weeks for me, because months later I passed through a pretty rigorous day-long assessment centre to get into the Civil Service, and my career could finally begin in earnest.

Now I have had a wonderful 14 years in the Civil Service, and I have managed to gradually climb the grades, but this rather rigid core-competence-based approach to interviews to which the Civil Service is wedded has been continually difficult, and there have been a lot of hit-and-miss and aborted attempts. And then about four years ago, I was still trying to get up into the ‘feeder grade’ for the Senior Civil Service. Now those of you who know the Civil Service will know that the Senior Civil Service is the place which any civil servant with ambition wants to reach, and the closer you get to it, the more this emphasis on smooth, clear, fluent, confident communication – I believe they call it Excellent oral communication skills.

And I was desperate to get that promotion, but as a new parent, while the bills were going up, my sleep levels were going down, and my stammer became quite severe. And I was just beginning to feel a wave of anxiety returning, when my wife heard about someone called Sam Simpson [of Intandem, a pioneer in bringing together mainstream therapy and person-centred counselling].

And when I met Sam for the first time, I realised two things. First, as many of you will know, she is a pretty canny operator.  But secondly, and this amazed me, she was prescribing nothing. No homework, no special exotic techniques to practice. This was more of a journey, an exploration of thoughts, ideas, feelings and memories. Every session had a shape and theme of its own – sometimes something that had happened in the week, sometimes a random thought, sometimes a success or a concern.

The most random was the hour we spent discussing why Benefits Management, with a capital B – a term we use a lot in the Civil Service – is so much harder to get out than ‘benefits’ with a lower case B. To say nothing of Beryl, barrel, Barry and Birmingham. But this journey, stretching out over two, nearly three, years, had a logical evolution. It began with me in relation to my stammer, then moved to me and my stammer in relation to other people, and the impact it might have on them and what they might feel. And then me as part of a community of other adults who stammer, and what we have common and the support that we can provide to each other.

I remember my feelings of anger spilling over but in a positive way, as I began to think about what could be done to get out there and start changing attitudes

And then, and this was the most exciting stage, where our conversations moved to a political level – yes political: the community of those who stammer, and the community of those who do not – schools, employers, service providers, and so forth. And I remember my feelings of anger spilling over but in a positive way, as I began to think about what could be done to get out there and start changing attitudes.

And I believe that when the mind is in that state, fired-up and truly primed to make change happen, that great things can start happening and beautiful things can enter your life – as indeed they did, in the form of Corporal Emmanuel Ottih and Warrant Officer Jimmy Lang, who I meet through the British Stammering Association. And we very quickly realised that we were all pulling in the same direction, having all just gone through speech therapy. We wanted to start tackling attitudes and raising awareness in the Armed Forces and the Civil Service.

So we set up the Defence Stammering Network, with the aims of providing support and inspiration to others who stammer, to begin pulling together everyone’s various experiences and looking for the commonalities to create information about how stammering is being handled in Defence. We wanted to go out and educate and create awareness under the DSN banner, and we wanted to start getting a bit ‘forensic’, looking at policies and processes where we identify scope for tweaks and change. We have had a fantastic two and half years, and the response from the Ministry of Defence and the Armed Forces has been exemplary.

But I just want to mention two last things that for me explain why all this has merely been an extension of the process of change and realignment that Sam inspired in me.

Firstly, when I met Emmanuel Ottih, one of his fears was that he would never make sergeant because he stammers. Today he is Sergeant Emmanuel Ottih.

And when wee Jimmy Lang arrived at the infantry recruiting office in Hamilton, he was told he would probably never make lance corporal, because of his speech. When he reached his battalion, in the Highland Division, they called him ‘Seven Ls Lang’…

Well they don’t call him 'Seven Ls' today. They call him Captain Jimmy Lang, Member of The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for services to stammering in the British Armed Forces.

So I would like to end by saying thank you, Sam. Thank you for your pioneering spirit and your innovation. Thank you for your patience and your determination. And thank you, together with Jan, Rachel, Carolyn and others the City Lit, for your deep commitment to this life-saving profession. Thank you.


Amanda:

My name is Amanda, I am an adult who stammers and made the personal decision to undergo speech therapy later in life. Those of us who do this can find ourselves on a major life changing journey and when we begin none of us quite know where that journey will take us.

No two people are the same, but I would like to share some thoughts and observations concerning my own experiences with therapy during the past five years or so, and also express gratitude to those who have been travelling with me along the way – because without the help and support of speech and language therapists and the British Stammering Association I wouldn’t be where I am today.

I first became aware I had some problems with speaking around the age of 7 or 8. Outwardly my stammer was very mild and I was the only one who was aware of the inner struggles and conflicts I was going through in speaking situations. I didn’t know anyone else who stammered and it was all a mystery to me – but I soon got the message that this was a "bad thing" that had to be avoided at all costs if I was to be acceptable to others.  I started to work very hard at ways of hiding it, and my stammer became what is known as "covert" where nearly all the obvious signs were hidden below the surface but which caused me a great deal of personal suffering.

strategies that hid my stammer [...] in turn held me back in many aspects of life, affecting my career choices, my relationships, how I perceived and valued myself as an individual and what my capabilities were

I would do anything to avoid social situations where I had to speak, kept myself within very defined comfort zones, and developed strategies that hid my stammer but in turn held me back in many aspects of life, affecting my career choices, my relationships, how I perceived and valued myself as an individual and what my capabilities were. In effect I became half a person, living half a life, with neither the knowledge or the resources to change things for the better.

The pivotal moment for me came about with the release of the film The King's Speech which inspired and motivated me to seriously consider having speech therapy for the first time.  Unfortunately I discovered early on that it wouldn't be possible in the area of Surrey where I live to have therapy under the NHS as is the case in many parts of the country where lack of funding has led to serious cut backs in the service. In London alone 14 trusts are unable to provide stammering therapy for adults and there are even some who no longer offer it to school age children.

Where speech therapy exists at all there is a woeful lack of specialist therapists who have the skills and expertise to meet the very individual needs of a person who stammers,  where there can be no such thing as a one size fits all approach. The only option for me, as for many others, was to pay to see a private therapist, which involved an enormous financial commitment over three years, and which sadly will beyond the means of many people. 

But I made that commitment and slowly but surely my life began to change and doors began to open for me that I imagined would always stay firmly shut. Speech therapy has enabled me to learn so much about myself and the things I am capable of. As someone who would never speak up I have given talks to groups about stammering, helped on professional training courses for therapists, have participated in live radio broadcasts and having been involved with the making of a documentary film with the New York based Stuttering Association for the Young, I am proud to be able to call myself an ambassador for the cause of stammering. A cause I am very passionate about and why I am standing here speaking to you this evening.

We all need mentors in our lives, people who inspire us and help us to reach our true potential. King George VI had such a mentor called Lionel Logue, and because of that mentor he was able despite his difficulties to find the strength and fortitude to lead his people as a successful and noble king. Well, we may not all be kings, but who can tell how many world changers and innovators are out there who might never get the chance to allow their unique talents to bloom because no one provided them with the tools they needed in order to grow.

who can tell how many world changers and innovators are out there who might never get the chance to allow their unique talents to bloom because no one provided them with the tools they needed in order to grow

Everyone deserves a chance and I firmly believe that to invest in the work carried out by speech and language therapists, work that is so often overlooked and undervalued but which can and does transform lives, is to invest in the future of our society as a whole.

I began by talking about a journey and I have often likened this journey I’ve had with my speech as climbing a series of mountains. There have been times when it has felt like tackling the Himalayas. But because of speech therapy, those seemingly unconquerable mountains have become mere stepping stones to a better and brighter future. A future I wish for everyone who struggles to be heard, where they can find their voice and truly learn to shine.