Limiting ourselves - my own experience

I have had only limited personal experience of discrimination (see here). I would say that for my own life any limitations have come much more from me than from other people. This page gives various examples in the context of stammering. You can see from the examples that this is actually a human thing rather than anything particularly to do with having a stammer.

To speak or not to speak

Most of what follows links with my experience of courses I did with Landmark Education. Their basic course is called the Landmark Forum and a lot of the idea of these courses is that you get insights which after you have had them you can never quite see the world in the same way again.

One of these insights for me in the Forum came when a lady was saying she couldn't possibly say something to someone or other and the Forum leader said: What do you mean you can't say that, you can open your mouth and speak. Nobody was talking about stammering here but I realised that that applied to me as well, even if when I opened my mouth I stammered. I could still open my mouth and say whatever I wanted to.

A short while after I went into a fitness centre (which incidentally I would never have done before this course) and a lady there spent some time showing me how to use the exercise machines. When I left I wanted to say "Thank you" to her but felt I was going to stammer badly. However I now knew that I could open my mouth if I chose to, and I did say thank you for her help (and stammered quite badly). But I was glad I had done that, rather than just walking out in apparently calm fashion and pretending to ignore her as I was tempted to.

Another insight came when someone (again not someone who stammered) shared how he was uncomfortable at parties and tended to stand by the wall and be reluctant to join groups. This was me to a "T" but I had always thought it was because of my stammer and that other people were pretty much OK. After all they could talk. Seeing this wasn't true was rather like finally joining the human race - it wasn't that I was different because of my stammer. Other people were shy and scared of people too. Soon after we had a client reception at work, which I would previously have found uninteresting to say the least, but this time I really enjoyed it and was taking part in conversations all over the place.

"Stammering is not an excuse"

I do not mean this is true, or that you should jolly well not use stammering as an excuse. I mean that it is possible to use this idea to empower yourself if you want to.

I did another course with Landmark called the Advanced Course, where again insights are important. Overnight you do something to put your main insight that day into practice in your life. (At least that is what happened when I did the course.) At the end of one day I couldn't think of any insight I had had so I had to make one up. One bit in the course that day had been about how maybe one thing is not a "reason" for or "caused by" something else, so I made up that my stammer is not a reason for anything. So for example it was not reason for not going on the radio. Accordingly that evening I phoned up a radio station and took part in an on-air quiz. I was absolutely terrified but I did it.

My partner Christine is wonderful at this. We once went to a workshop with a lady called Marianne Williamson and she asked that every single person in the room (well over 100 people) say something very brief on a particular subject to the whole group. Christine got up and said what she wanted, with her stammer being very obvious. Someone (not a person with a stammer) afterwards came over to Christine and said she had been going to stay in her chair and not say anything, but when she heard Christine she had thought well if Christine could stand up and do that with a stammer then she could jolly well do it, and she did. (I had got up as well but my speech was pretty good by then.)

Getting on the phone

Another couse I did with Landmark was called the Communication Course. One thing I got out of this (apart from my relationship with Christine!) was how easy it often is to sort things about by getting into communication - say by picking up the phone to someone and asking or talking about it. I got back to work and started doing this quite a bit - it made life so much easier. I also noticed how other (fluent) people could be reluctant to do this when I suggested it on a particular problem, and would prefer to find an answer without picking up the phone, even where it would take substantially longer and there was no reason not to make the phone call. Of course this was precisely how I had been previously.

How other people react to our stammer

Of course I don't say that discrimination or unacceptable attitudes towards stammerers do not happen, just that we should ask whether it is really happening in the particular case. I find I need to be aware of my own preconceptions here.

One of the most fascinating workshops for me was one I went to at the World Congress for People who Stutter in Johannesburg in 1998. The workshop looked at the attitudes of people who stammer towards their listeners and vice versa. In the workshop there were both people who stammered and people who didn't. What struck me was that the overwhelming reaction of the fluent people there listening to someone who stammers was wanting to be able to help but probably not quite knowing what they could do. I realised that my perception of people listening to me stammering was that they would be angry and fed up with me for not getting on with it. (In fact that probably says more about how I personally want to react to people who don't get on with things, including myself.) Many of the other people in the workshop who stuttered seemed to have a similar view of their listeners.

Of course listeners are sometimes angry and impatient. But I had pretty much assumed without thinking about it that that is naturally how any listener would be. It was just part of how the world was for me. If I am expecting a listener to react like that it doesn't make for a great conversation. It cuts me off from them. It's not nice for me - and it's not nice for the listener either.

In a similar way, people who stammer may be "listening out" for, even expecting, discrimination and see it where it isn't there. An employer may turn down a person who stammers. Incredibly large numbers of people who don't stammer get turned down for jobs and it may well have nothing to do with the stammer. That is not to say you shouldn't tackle it when you do think there are grounds for complaint. Maybe expecting discrimination in this way can actually be a self-fulfilling prophecy - I might not come across at interview as a very approachable person or good to have around if I was on the look-out for any evidence that the interview panel might be discriminating against me.

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© Allan Tyrer 1999
Last updated 11th December, 1999