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Silence on campus: STUC conference thoughts

| 11.03.2019

Reflections on the recent conference about stammering at university.

‘Silence on campus: Making a noise about stammering’ was a day-long event in January organised by the Stammerers Through University Consultancy (STUC), an organisation founded by Claire Norman.

Aimed at students and staff who stammer and university staff who support them, the day was devoted to looking at ways to make the experience of university for people who stammer the best one possible. Two attendees give their thoughts below.

Lindsey Pike

Lindsey spoke on the day about setting up networks, herself being the Chair of The University of Bristol Staff Who Stammer network. She writes:

University is often seen as a formative experience (‘the best years of your life’!). But what if a communication impairment is consistently throwing a spanner in those ‘best years’? From the presentations and conversations throughout the conference, here are some of the main points I noted:

Advice for students who stammer

  • You’re not alone. Seek out people who can relate to you – there's strength in sharing.
  • You have a right to ask for reasonable adjustments when being assessed as part of work or studies and in job interviews. These may include extra time in oral exams, providing additional written information before or after an assessment involving speaking and requesting a face-to-face rather than a telephone interview.
  • Don’t let your stammer limit your horizons when it comes to job hunting. ‘Good communication’ does not mean ‘fluent’ speech.
  • If your university disability support service isn’t providing helpful advice or solutions, contact the BSA or STUC.

How can staff support students who stammer?

Staff were asked to consider how assessment methods for presentations and oral participation in seminars could disadvantage students who stammer. For instance:

  • Have you identified students who might stammer and discussed their oral participation with them? Have you asked them what reasonable adjustments they might feel comfortable accessing?
  • Research has shown that people tend to rate speakers more highly when they speak with confidence and fluency (click here to view a pdf of the study supporting this), regardless of the content. How can you tackle your innate bias and ensure you are assessing students on content, not fluency?

Becoming conscious of your bias is a good first step for this second point; the next is to focus on what is being said, rather than how it is being said. Assessments are meant to gauge knowledge, skills and competence, not fluency. Tips and ideas for creating an inclusive learning environment included:

  • Use technology to encourage participation (e.g. Sli.do).
  • When chairing discussions, encourage participation while allowing self-differentiated approaches (giving students the option to contribute in the way they feel comfortable).
  • Avoid spot questioning.
  • Being a role model for acceptable behaviour.

The experience of staff who stammer

Discussing the experience of academics who stammer, Senior Lecturer at the University of Derby Dr Claire Tupling talked about managing dysfluency while lecturing, battling feelings of imposter syndrome, having the ‘choice’ of disclosing a disability taken away and ‘challenging the superiority of fluency': "As academics we have a responsibility to assert our right to stammer," she said. I’d also add that lecturers and other university staff are role models and show students that of course you can do a job that involves lots of speaking while having a stammer. Claire also described strategies such as ‘taming your chair’ – making sure people chairing meetings are aware of your stammer and facilitate your involvement.

So, what can we do?

A discussion concluded the conference, with panellists talking about ideas to improve the university experience for students who stammer, including:

  • Running campus-wide events to raise awareness of stammering.
  • Creating visible materials advertising support.
  • Initiating a mentoring scheme.
  • Including stammering in equality diversity and inclusion training.
  • Making reasonable adjustments to assessments to ensure they don’t disadvantage students who stammer.
  • Joining STUC.
  • Encouraging staff to ask students what they can do to help them learn better?
  • Encouraging students to seek support from disability services.

Reflections

Attending the conference made me reflect on my own experience. At school my mum encouraged me to tell new teachers about my stammer at the start of every term. My teachers supported my ‘self-differentiated approaches’ (e.g. "don’t make me read out in class, it’s pointless"; "I’m happy to answer questions and will put my hand up"; "I’ll present to you if I have to, but not the whole class"), which built my confidence in asking for what I needed.

At university however, I can’t remember ever giving a presentation (maybe I’ve repressed it). When standing for a society committee role I asked a friend to read my speech out for me. My stammer was unspoken; no-one asked about it and as most of my learning was in large and impersonal lecture theatres, I didn’t mention it. My assessments were written and I did well as a result. Would I have done so if I’d been assessed orally? I don’t know.

I left the conference feeling inspired and hopeful. Thanks to Claire Norman, STUC and a passionate community of people, there’s a better chance of university being ‘the best years of your life’, stammer or not.

Lindsey would welcome contact from other university network Chairs to share ideas about making networks successful. Email her at lindsey.pike@bristol.ac.uk

Chris Douce

Chris is a tutor at The Open University (OU) and was on the discussion panel at the event. He writes:

Attending this conference made me reflect on the good points and the challenging points of my own university experiences.

School teacher Abed Ahmed, who stammers himself, shared some phrases that resonated with me, such as "Speak to thrive rather than survive". What struck me was Abed’s determination to become a teacher. He said teaching was a ‘second option’ for some of his peers, whereas for Abed it was a primary objective. When I was his age, I had completely ruled out teaching as a career choice because of my stammer (only to embrace it years later when I became a part-time tutor for the OU).

Lindsey Pike spoke about the importance of networks within a university that offer support for different groups of staff. I reflected that the power of networks comes from its members and their personal contacts. I also thought that a wider set of networks might be gained by joining a trade union, which can help with institutional and national issues regarding accessibility and disability.

Dr Claire Tupling talked about her research addressing themes such as how disability can be socially constructed. She argued that “the academic workplace is frequently a key site in the construction of individuals’ disablement”.

Panel discussion

I was one of the panellists for the discussion at the end. Here are some points I noted:

  • The importance of replacing ‘fluency’ from assessment criteria with ‘effectiveness of communication’.
  • Stammering can affect non-assessed work (since students and tutors might have discussions to help with essays).
  • Inclusion relates to organisational culture, and thinking about inclusion for PWS can have a positive effect on all students.

Interestingly, the theme of mental health emerged a number of times (the link being that people who stammer might be affected by mental health issues as a result).

I think there’s value in connecting with other disability groups or organisations – I feel that more influence can be gained if different groups work together. This said, it’s important to find a way to ensure that the educators are educated and myths are dispelled. Organisations such as STUC can play an important role with both of these tasks.

This is an edited version of a longer blog post by Chris. Read the whole thing at https://learn1.open.ac.uk/mod/oublog/view.php?user=42396

You can watch each presentation at https://www.soas.ac.uk/about/events/2019/19jan2019-silence-on-campus-mak...

For more details and reflections from the event, check out the STUC Twitter stream and search for the hashtags #silenceoncampus and #getSTUCin.

All images supplied by STUC.