A great opportunity to talk about change

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This article first appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of CSA Voices.

We don’t often get a decent opportunity to talk to non-stutterers about stuttering.  And possibly we are a bit reluctant to take the few opportunities we do get. Instead, we’ve tended to support each other by talking amongst ourselves.  As a result, we’ve created a kind of hidden Stuttering World, which means that stuttering is not well understood in the Outside World.

A world which understands stuttering

Most national stuttering associations say their mission is to create a world which understands stuttering.  Yet, not surprisingly, most of us are doing our damnedest to avoid being seen to be stuttering, particularly in public.  So, in terms of creating a world which understands stuttering, we are our own worst enemies.

This ‘if-only-they-understood-my-secret’ paradox was brought home to me when I was first asked to do some BBC radio interviews about stuttering.  There was no point, I reasoned, eventually, in worrying too much about not being fluent because, if I wanted the world to understand stuttering, people needed to hear me stutter and, hopefully, come to the conclusion that this was an intelligent person who simply could not control his speech.

If more of us were prepared to be seen and heard to be stuttering, then, some day, maybe, it will be possible for a PWS to walk into a room full of strangers and stutter openly – and he, and everyone else in the room, will be easy with that.  Warmth, we should remind ourselves from time to time, can melt icebergs.

The last high profile stutterer

I don’t know whether it’s the same in Canada but, in the UK,  when people think back, trying to remember a famous stutterer, they nearly always come up with King George VI.  ‘What a brave man’, they tend to say.  So it’s not too surprising that the new film, The King’s Speech, focuses on the King’s efforts to play the cards that life had dealt him.

Many films, such as A Fish Called Wanda, have treated stuttering as a joke.  But, in The King’s Speech. there is a stuttering hero – and, if you’ve seen the film, you’ll know that Colin Firth does an incredibly good job of conveying how it is to be stuck in a block with no control over your speech and some people staring and others looking away.  No film has ever done that before.  Another piece of good news is that the director, Tom Hooper, has not ‘given’ the King what you might describe as a stereotypical stuttering personality.  So the film will help create the opportunity for greater empathy between stutterers and non-stutterers.

Thankfully, we now know a lot more about stuttering than was known in the 1930s.  But very few of the 99 per cent of people in the Outside World will have any idea what has changed.  So the public’s often ingrained view of stuttering may encourage some to conclude that the King stuttered because he had been treated cruelly when he was a child – this was the Freudian-type thinking of the time, later disproved by ‘The Monster Study’.  But, as we now know, he would have been born with a neural propensity to stutter.  So his character and behaviour would have been powerfully affected by this inability to communicate satisfactorily – not vice versa.

There have always been misconceptions about stuttering.  But this film gives stutterers and non- stutterers ‘permission’ to talk about stuttering.  It’s the best opportunity, almost in living memory, for us to be open, to talk on such a big stage, to bring people up to date and to start working towards change.

Leys Geddes is a marketing consultant and the current Chair of the British Stammering Association.  Fired for his stammering in 1980, he opened his own consultancy and, since the late 1990s, has been working mainly in healthcare marketing, dealing with difficult-to-discuss conditions. His great great grandfather was a Canadian and his eldest son recently achieved some fame in Montreal as the singer with a band called Mute.