The ITV documentary School for Stammerers made for emotional viewing, and I commend all the participants for their bravery and the programme producers for an excellent portrayal of the daily challenges associated with having a stammer. Although it’s great that awareness of these challenges has been raised, there are a number of issues brought up by this kind of documentary which may not help to advance the cause of people who stammer, and which in fact have the potential to reinforce the stigma associated with stammering.
The stories shown were hugely inspiring, but the impression given is that if only everyone who stammered had access to such help, they too could ‘overcome their stammer’, and all their problems would be solved. This is absolutely not the case.
As an NHS Speech and Language Therapist specialising in stammering, I work with people of all ages, and I have yet to meet two people whose stammer affects them in quite the same way. This means that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to stammering therapy. The high level of training, skill and expertise required of NHS specialist Speech Therapists means that therapy can be uniquely tailored to each person and their individual requirements. The intensive McGuire programme, as depicted in School for Stammerers, is one very specific approach to stammering, which can work brilliantly for some people, but certainly not for all.
What really concerned me during the programme was the language used. The constant references to overcoming and controlling stammering merely reinforce the message that stammering is something that must be controlled if it is to be socially acceptable. It’s worth noting that controlling a stammer is incredibly difficult and requires a huge amount of effort, even with professional help, but surely the issue here is why the need to control it at all?
Over the last decade or two, there has been a real shift within the stammering community towards a more socially inclusive model, which doesn’t view stammering as something shameful, but as something to be accepted and maybe even embraced. Society’s attitudes towards other forms of neurodiversity, such as dyslexia and autism, have changed dramatically and for the better over the last few decades, but for some reason, our view of stammering, which is also neurological in basis, seems to lag way behind. Programmes such as School for Stammerers inadvertently collude in this by reinforcing the notion that stammering is something to be fixed rather than accepted.
The social view of disability recognises that a condition is only disabling when external barriers placed in the way of the person prevent their access to and participation in everyday activities, education, employment etc. People who stammer are disabled, not by their stammer, but by other people interrupting them, mocking them, putting the phone down on them, finishing their sentences for them, judging them negatively, making assumptions about their character and intelligence, denying them employment opportunities… I could go on.
These are all experiences common to most people who stammer, who show the same range of character traits and intelligence as everyone else. I would argue that it’s not for people to control their stammer, but for those of us who don’t stammer to control our response, i.e. to wait patiently and listen respectfully, as we would want anyone to do for us when we are speaking.
For anyone who stammers watching the documentary and thinking of seeking help, but who can’t afford the considerable cost of the McGuire programme, I would like to be able to reassure them that high-quality, effective therapy is available free of charge on the NHS. And in some areas, it is. However, as with many other services, a postcode lottery has developed for the provision of adult stammering therapy. Funding cuts have hit Speech and Language Therapy hard and many areas no longer have a specialist service.
That is why I have spent the last several months trialling an innovative way of delivering speech therapy remotely to adults who stammer in areas where there is no local provision. Many of the people accessing the therapy tell me they have been waiting years to get some form of help. As long as NHS services continue to be underfunded, many more people will go without help. This may assist private providers’ ability to thrive, but excludes those without the means and deprives all from accessing the broad spectrum approach offered by NHS Speech and Language Therapists.