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The BSA National Conference in Manchester is coming up fast and with that workshop organisers like us are making our presentations and talks to (hopefully) entertain, intrigue and inspire attendees. Our first “Why Sssooo Ssserious” workshop at the London Open Day was initially met with a few odd looks and comments, so we thought it would be good to explain the thoughts behind it for its upcoming sequel in Manchester.
Laughter is powerful. Jokes in society about stammering that peddle prejudiced, negative views are all too common. These jokes undoubtedly play a significant role in creating and maintaining the large amount of public stigma surrounding stammering as well as assisting the development of internalised stigma. Fortunately, this common experience has united the stammering community to crusade against laughing at stammering, from the playground to the television.
The chosen tag-line at the time though “stammering is no joke” seems to too black and white.
People who stammers’ often almost uniformly negative experience of jokes about stammering can cloud their vision to this potential of positive jokes about stammering that can break rather than make stammering stereotypes.
In our experience, the laughs come easy and acceptance follows when you mention stammering in a humorous light
- Ian, for instance, often opens his presentations with “I have a stammer and will probably have some long blocks. If you just bear with me, I’ll try and have you out by Christmas”. It immediately puts both himself and the audience at ease. The elephant in the room is outed straight away and they know it’s something that can be acknowledged… even joked about.
- Nisar has found that using humour allows him to set the tone for how we are received rather than allowing the tone to be dictated by a third-party at the expense of our predicament. He has been inspired by Katherine Preston with her positive and occasionally humorous approach to stammering. Nisar finds himself quipping and playing with his stammer during prolongations as an antidote to constantly bogging himself down under the self-inflicted pressure of his negative thoughts and ideas about stammering.
- Lesley has found, like Ian, using humour when talking about her stammering experiences makes advertising easier as it not only puts her at ease but the listener too. It gives the listener the opportunity to engage in a positive conversation about stammering.
- And, Patrick once managed to win a local round of the Toastmasters Humorous Speech Contest with a speech entitled “H-H-Hilarious”.
More widely, the power of laughter has been noticed in other stigmatised disabilities as well. Indeed, a positive disability comedy movement has blossomed over the past 10 years.
One great example is Jess Thom, an activist using humour in Tourette’s. She founded the site TouretteHero, which celebrates the humour and creativity of Tourette’s. She says:
“[We use humour about Tourette’s] to challenge the assumptions about the condition and about disability more generally. To reduce fear of difference, biscuit, and help everyone feel more comfortable talking about it, Biscuit, because it is crucial the voices of disabled people are heard to counteract the rhetoric that is often used about disability. In my experience, humour plays an important role in cutting through fear and helping people feel at ease with difference. Laughing matters”
There are already several stand-up comedians who stammer: Jaik Campbell, Nina G, Chris Douce, or Drew Lynch to name but a few. We even made a show reel of them to show at the workshop – until the Wi-Fi failed. They are all great to watch on YouTube.
The massive potential of positive jokes about stammering and disability is only beginning to be realised. We hope our workshops can encourage this trend to continue.
Monday morning after a tumultuous few days - feels almost a relief to be back in the office and not glued to the telly.
As the Chinese curse goes, "may you live in interesting times". It's a whole new ballgame out there and we will need time to evaluate the impact on BSA. Some of it will be unique to the BSA, some more widely felt in the charitable sector. Some of it may not be apparent for some years and is dependent on the outcome of any negotiations, so we may be worrying prematurely.
Nobody has yet quite worked through what the impact on the economy will be – not as catastrophic as prophesied but not as good as it could be, most likely. There is likely to be an impact on our fundraising as those Trust funders who support the BSA, thanks to Lee’s hard work, may see the value of their investments (and therefore their dividends) decline. Not only that, charities are currently in receipt of €200m EU funding each year and as these funds run out over the next few years and new ones won't come on stream, there will be a greater demand on charitable trust funders to make up the shortfall. This will result in far greater competition for a smaller pot of money. This may have potentially the biggest impact on our income.
What's happening in Whitehall - what will be the impact on our work to influence government policy and practice? BSA has been supportive of the Communication Trust's efforts to make sure that the communication needs of children will be firmly anchored in the Government's new Life Chances strategy which aimed to give children from poorer backgrounds a better start in life. Will a change in leadership put this on hold?
As with charitable giving, any potential financial support from Government for our work may well be less likely as priorities may shift as a result of the referendum.
On a personal level, while our members and supporters have always been very generous, any worries about their economic future may well mean there will be less spare money to support the cause, or for items of extra spending, for example to attend our Conference.
But equally, in these interesting times, we as a charity and a community for and by people who stammer need to be ready to support each other; to lift each other up, and to be there, as BSA always has been, with advice, with encouragement, with inspiration and with support.
The theme of this year's BSA conference is “Improvement”. But what does that mean? It sounds an ordinary enough word, but the promise it holds is intoxicating.
The word improvement implies aspiration. Aspiring to be better at what we are, what we do. It also suggests the possible.
Improvement has connotations of development and growth, of getting stronger, probably over a period of time - a journey, if you like. A journey of discovery, sometimes, where we realize talents in ourselves that we never thought could flourish.
Improvement, kind of, insinuates small gains over time. A great wine is almost undrinkable to start with but it improves gradually over ten or twenty years. A marathon runner doesn’t do a time of 2hrs 20 minutes straight away. Her time improves through training month after month after month.
So, improvement suggests a movement from one state to a state considered to be at a higher level – a change for the better over time.
And that’s why our theme is so exciting. There’s so much within ourselves. The potential is there, it just needs to be brought out. Our theme says you don’t have to accept how things are now. There’s hope. You don’t have to remain locked away in a dungeon of dysfluency or disaffection. You don’t have to look back in later years and regret the missed opportunities.
One other great thing about improvement is its inclusiveness. Anyone can do it!
The conference will tell you how.
For some people who stammer the journey starts on the 2nd September. It’s a voyage of self-discovery, but it’s also a discovery of the help that’s available for you.
But what is it that is going to be improved, or strengthened? Here’s what: belief in ourselves, our confidence, our unwillingness to be shackled by our stammer, our ability to look at ourselves in a more positive light. Maybe, even, our fluency.
Of course, we talk about self-improvement. But what about society? Do we not also have to move society forward to a state of better understanding of what stammering is, and of how to relate to people who stammer? The conference addresses that, too.
So the conference in September is the perfect place to begin, and in many cases to continue, the journey I’ve been talking about because there will be people all around you who are willing to help. Not least the keynote speakers and workshop presenters who are there to inspire us and to educate us.
You can book your place online, either for the whole weekend or as a day visitor.
Roll on September 2nd!
I went to my first Open Day several years ago in Nottingham. It was the first time that I had come into contact with the BSA. And what particularly struck me at that event was the confidence of many of the people there. The London Open Day was the same.
To speak with confidence, whether stammering or not, is hugely liberating. And I see the job of the BSA as helping to build confidence by providing forums, opportunities, information, peer support, advice and inspiration to people who stammer. In many ways Open Days encapsulate what BSA is all about. It’s about empowering people who stammer to believe in themselves, and to have the courage to take those challenging first steps on what can initially appear to be a daunting journey.
And going to an Open Day is the first step for many people who stammer. They have the opportunity, often for the first time, to talk to other people who stammer, and to get inspiration both from them and from the speakers.
Take Shelagh Fogarty, who is a presenter at LBC London Radio. Shelagh told us during her keynote speech that she first realised she stammered at the age of nine. She had the good fortune of having a very understanding teacher who took all the pressure off her at school. But it must be one of the worst nightmares for people who stammer to be a radio presenter. Certainly mine, anyway, but Shelagh wasn’t going to let her stammer stop her.
Shelagh’s speech is fluent now, but she was asked whether someone with a noticeable stammer would be offered a job as a presenter today. Interesting question… She didn’t know the answer, but felt that if you wanted the job you shouldn’t let your stammer stop you from applying. It’s time we had a stammering presenter!
I would have liked to have gone to all the workshops but, of course, you have to choose. I went to two outstanding ones. It would take too long to recount them here, but everyone I spoke to had found great value in all the workshops they had been to during the day.
We talk a lot about changing society’s attitude to stammering, and about ensuring that people who stammer are not discriminated against. That’s important. But Open Days are about taking responsibility for our stammer, and making a conscious decision to discover ourselves through the experience and inspiration of other people.
I’m not content to just sit back and ask society to accommodate my stammer. Understand me and allow me reasonable adjustments, yes, but in the end it’s me who has to decide what I want out of life. The fact that so many people came to the London Open Day is testament to their refusal to be ruled by their stammer. I really enjoyed talking to some great people from all walks of life with one question in common: I stammer, but how can I make the most of my talents?
The worst thing about a stammer is that it puts you off doing what you really want to do. The message from the speakers at the Open Day was: don’t let it! Be brave and the rewards will be great.
I stammer. In (UK) legal terms I’m disabled because my stammer has a “substantial adverse effect on my ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”.
I don’t want to be discriminated against. I don’t want my stammer alone to be a reason for not employing me. And I want reasonable adjustments in the workplace to take into account the fact that it might take me longer to say things.
I may be disabled, but I’m also good at my job.
Saying I’m disabled gives me protection under the Equality Act 2010. 'Disability' in the Equality Act is a legal concept. You don’t have to "admit" that you would consider yourself disabled in a wider sense. You can dissociate yourself from the disabled world if you like, and still get the benefit of the Act.
But we can’t have our cake and eat it. Are we being disingenuous, on one hand, to demand protection against discrimination and, on the other hand, to disclaim association with the disabled community?
Can you compare stammering with other disabilities? Is it in the same league as cerebral palsy or the inability to walk? Alex Taylor, who is confined to a wheelchair, certainly thinks so. As he says, “freedom of expression is far more important. It’s the key to our personality”.
freedom of expression is far more important. It’s the key to our personality
Looking at it another way, it’s not the stammer that’s disabling, it’s society’s attitude which disables us. I’m disabled, but not because of my stammer. I’m disabled because of the attitude of people around me.
I used to look on disability as an unfortunate label, with derogatory implications. I suppose I didn’t want to be seen as disabled. What’s wrong with being disabled? The problem is that the word disabled can have negative connotations such as powerlessness, incapability, and being "different". But now I feel that my view may have been rather insulting to other disabled people.
People with other disabilities are basically ordinary people too, just with a particular impairment. Many of them would not want to be considered "different" but would see themselves as "normal" people who can’t walk, see, or make sense of words, etc.
But what does the word "normal" mean? People who stammer make up 1% of the population. By one definition, therefore, my stammer is not "normal". I would say that I’m a normal person, but my stammer is not normal. Would you consider dyslexia or depression to be "normal"? There are so many people in a population with some form of disabling impairment that it becomes normal to be disabled in some way.
If something about you is not normal are you, therefore, disabled? My size 15 feet are well outside the normal range. Am I disabled? My dancing partner would argue that I certainly am. Does the size of my feet have a substantial adverse effect on my ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities? No. I therefore don’t qualify for protection under the Equality Act. You can see that the degree of disability can range from mild to moderate, severe, or profound.
So, of course, it’s up to us individually to decide whether we view ourselves as disabled or not. Personally, I don’t want to get too hung up on the word disabled. Being disabled is part of me. It doesn’t define me, but I’m very proud to be associated with disabled people, some of whom are truly inspirational.
I’m sometimes accused of being a fake. I take that as a huge compliment.
Through a combination of speech therapy and relaxation techniques I’ve been able to control my stammer to a point that people think I’m fluent.
But am I being disloyal to the stammering community by seeking fluency? Should I be stammering freely, and proud of it?
The fact is, I never found it much fun to stammer. I get greater enjoyment out of speaking more fluently.
The advice from some quarters is to stammer confidently. But say that to the mum of a three-year-old who has just started to stammer, or to someone with a stammer so severe that it takes minutes to say a short sentence. And the problem is that there’s such a spectrum of type and severity of stammer that it’s almost impossible to dispense one-size-fits-all, universal, advice.
On the surface there seems to be two, opposing, sides to the stammering debate.
First, those who think that society should look on stammering as a normal, but different, way of speaking and as part of the rich diversity of human life. By changing society’s attitude towards stammering, it is said that people who stammer will be more confident (and, therefore, naturally more fluent) because they have no reason to feel tense, anxious, and ashamed.
Second, those who think that stammering is a speech defect and something to be overcome, or at least improved, using the many forms of help available.
Or to put it in academic terms, the social model versus the medical model.
It’s easy to like the social model. It’s somehow cosy and reassuring. It requires no effort from people who stammer. It places responsibility squarely on society to smarten up its act.
Not surprisingly I’m a fan of speech and relaxation therapy – examples of the medical model. But I’d be the first to acknowledge that these interventions don’t work for everyone. And that’s why I think the social model is so important, too.
And yet, I fear that people who stammer could expect too much of a society which is confronted by a legion of human problems and disabilities. Yes, society should celebrate diversity. But don’t people who stammer, too, have a responsibility to use whatever help there is to mitigate the difficulties they have? It’s a two-way thing.
Acceptance, treatment, awareness - you’ll find all views expressed here in the BSA . The BSA supports and advises people who stammer and their families who are urgently, sometimes desperately, seeking help. Today. But it also works tirelessly to change society’s attitude towards stammering. The irony for me, of course, is that it needs confident stammering to deliver the impact required to spread awareness and to increase understanding in society.
Perhaps I should start stammering again…