by Patrick Cross, Ministry of Defence
Stammering affects roughly 1% of the adult population.
The Armed Forces and Ministry of Defence employ over 200,000 people in the UK (excluding Reserves), which means there are likely to be more than 2,000 people who stammer working in this high pressure, high profile environment.
Stammering has often been portrayed in the media as a bit of a joke – Open All Hours, A Fish Called Wanda and Porky Pig being a few examples – and not a real disability. No doubt it will continue to be seen like this for some time to come by some people. But for those of us who do stammer (or have stammered in the past), it is definitely not a joke.
I’ve worked in the MoD for over 30 years and my stammer has mostly gone away now, but at school and the start of my career when my dysfluency was at its zenith, the lack of understanding, impatience and in some cases rudeness and mockery exhibited by some people towards me destroyed what confidence I had.
The result was that I clammed up and only spoke when I had to. My mantra was:
“It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear to be stupid than to open it and remove all doubt”*
Awareness about stammering has increased since then, however misconceptions are still common.
While these misconceptions are damaging and may actually worsen attitudes and behaviours towards people who stammer, groups like the British Stammering Association, Employers Stammering Network and in my case, the Defence Stammering Network (DSN) are making significant progress towards generating better public understanding about the causes of stammering – and the very real challenges that it can present, not least in the workplace.
One recent step taken by the DSN has been the development of some written policy soon to be adopted MoD wide to support military and civilian personnel who stammer, from initial recruitment through to retirement. One of the key issues being addressed is Reasonable Adjustments (RA) at interview. Interviews are high pressure situations for the vast majority of – if not all – applicants. But for people who stammer, interviews can be our worst nightmare.
RAs are there to give all applicants, whatever their (dis)abilities, a fair crack of the whip, whether it is a requirement for a ramp for wheelchair access or extra time for the interview. RAs are usually put in place for those with a recognised disability or condition. That is the key point for me - I have never ticked the “Are you disabled?” box on any form, but ticking that box could help level the playing field for you. Stammering is a neurological condition, just like autism, cerebral palsy and motor neuron disease. I’ve no doubt Stephen Hawking would get RAs at interview, but I’ve also no doubt that he would ask for them.
You can’t tell someone stammers just by looking at them, so at interview, unless the panel are aware, being suddenly confronted with a person who stammers without any prior knowledge is likely to put them off-guard and possibly make them feel uneasy and therefore potentially less open to what you have to say. Ticking the box and being open will alleviate this.
Engage early with the recruiter – email them or phone them to say that you have a stammer and ask them for extra time for the interview.
A case in point...
This is a recent thread on the DSN Facebook group:
“Recently I applied for a new internal job. In my online application I ticked the disability box, stating that I have a stammer. When invited to interview, someone from the HR team called me to introduce herself as one of the interviewers and to better understand my requirements.
This significantly helped with the overall experience and based on the interviewer/HR team’s proactive actions, I really felt that my stammer did not impact on performance or the perception of the interviewers and I felt much more comfortable which allowed me to focus on the content of my answers rather than my speech.”
I think you’ll agree that this is a great example of positive employer behaviour towards people who stammer, but it started by ticking the box.
Indeed, it is now common practice in the Civil Service Fast Stream to give candidates up to 100% more time for their oral assessments.
Some people will never lose their misconceptions about people who stammer, some will look uneasy around you and finish words or sentences for you. My advice would be to try to understand that for what it is – usually unease and a lack of familiarity with the condition – and take it with a smile and crack on.
From a personal perspective, I have previously tried to hide my stammer either by not speaking at all or by structuring my speech to avoid certain words. As I said, nowadays I rarely stammer outwardly but I am aware that it does sometimes take me longer to gather my thoughts before I start to speak. In the last 18 months I have applied for 2 promotions and failed on both occasions at interview, primarily for not presenting strong enough evidence to convince the panel that I was right for the job, but I can’t help thinking that my latent dysfluency might have played a part too.
I think I’ll tick the box next time….
Tick the box – just do it!
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"Stammering is Cool" is a quote from Cpl Emmanuel Ottih, co-founder of the Defence Stammering Network
*Attributed to Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain and others