Irina Papencheva and Phil Madden demand a fresh start in attitudes towards stammering
Tomorrow (22 October) is International Stammering Awareness Day. There is a lot for social care professionals to be aware of. Twenty-two years since A Fish Called Wanda, in which Michael Palin played a robber with a bad stutter, stammering is still considered fair game for laughs.
But it is not. It is a disability. Now that the UK government has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, it is time to make a fresh start.
First some facts. Stammering is complex in severity and pattern. Some stutterers have continuous blocks, others episodes of fluency. Stammering is more prevalent than many realise, affecting 1% of the world population. Some are “hidden stutterers”, whose fluent speech is a result of constant word substitutions, resulting in high stress because of fear of being exposed.
Opinions vary about causes and treatment. What is not in question is how devastatingly destructive being a stammerer can be. Many stammerers suffer severe depression and anxiety, and isolate themselves rather than be bullied and humiliated.
Stammering can also be the underlying cause of other problems. For example, a high proportion of young offenders are stammerers.
Other stammerers do engage with society, but limit their ambitions, and are weakened by the effort involved. Many are discriminated against when applying for jobs in our image-conscious, time-pressured world.
Of course, this last point is not unique to stammering. There has been general, if fragile, progress in understanding and acceptance of disability, but it is uneven, and stammering is one of those disabilities where ignorance and discrimination remain high.
So what is to be done? The most significant way forward is through self-help and empowerment, through organisations such as the British Stammering Association and, more widely, the European League of Stuttering Associations. They provide vital support to stutterers. At the biennial meeting young people from across Europe share their experiences, develop assertiveness and learn how to network, promote awareness and support their national associations. Such movements free stammerers from isolation, and give them ways and confidence to go out into the world.
The BSA has joined other organisations concerned with specific communication disorders in an Adult Communication Coalition. The aim is improve public awareness and understanding, and also professional awareness and competence.
This applies to social care professionals as well as those in health and education. This could be done by amending qualification and post-qualification training on communication. Social care agencies should also have an explicit communication charter to set out how they will respond to specific communication needs such as stammering.
Then, of course, everyone has the responsibility to be aware, to be sensitive in our conversations and meetings and, above all, to rememberit’s NOT funny!
Irina Papencheva is a board member of the Bulgarian Stuttering Association and Phil Madden is vice-president of the European Association of Service Providers for Persons with Disabilities
This article is published in the 21 October issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Funny how stammering is still seen as a joke