With award-winning film ‘Stutterer’ shortlisted for an Oscar this weekend for Best Live Action Short, Heather Harris investigates what life is like for those who stammer...
Winston Churchill, Nicole Kidman, Marilyn Monroe, Tiger Woods, Emily Blunt and King George VI – all have something in common. And on 25 October 2013, Musharaf Asghar, a 16-year-old from Dewsbury, joined this list of famous politicians, actresses and sportsmen.
Musharaf was the young star of Channel 4’s Educating Yorkshire documentary who turned TV viewers into a weeping mass as we witnessed his efforts to cope with his stammer - something that elite celebrity group have successfully achieved.
Colin Firth’s portrayal of King George VI’s speech problem may have won him an Oscar for The King’s Speech, but arguably it was Musharaf who won our hearts and really brought the whole issue of stammering firmly into our living rooms as he told viewers, initially via a laptop, “If I could speak fluently I would show people who I really am.”
Speaking after the programme, Cherry Hughes, Education Officer at the British Stammering Association (BSA) charity, said, “Stammering is not well understood and sometimes is mimicked and a subject of mockery in society. What shone through in Educating Yorkshire was Musharaf’s brave efforts to confront the challenge of speaking and the school did their absolute utmost to understand his needs and meet them.”
Interestingly, it was a DVD of The King’s Speech that gave English teacher Mr Burton an idea of how to help his pupil though his GCSE oral exam. “I thought wearing headphones and listening to loud music may help,” he said. And the result was one of the most moving movements on British TV as we all heard this shy boy (known to his friends as Mushy) – not only pass his exam but give a speech in Assembly in front of his moist-eyed classmates.
But, sadly, for 70 million people worldwide – that’s 1% of the population – stammering is not the stuff of celebrity status but of a horrific daily struggle. The speech impediment itself is just a small part of the huge impact the issue can have on a sufferer’s whole personality and self-confidence as they not only learn to avoid certain words, but also social and business situations.
As 15-year-old Liam explains, “I have had a stammer since I was little but I was becoming much more frustrated and depressed about the problem. It was hard at school as GCSEs had oral presentations. Parties had become a nightmare because all the issues and worries to do with being a teenager had become exaggerated by my stammer. Every part of my life was affected.”
That’s something Norbert Lieckfeldt understands all too well. He now works for the BSA after getting help from them himself in his mid-20s when he had a severe stutter. Speaking to me on the telephone, with a slight speech impediment remaining, he explains, “Communicating is a vital part of our life and, even with texting and emailing, not being able to speak fluently is still devastating. There is a huge stigma attached to stammering. If someone is in a wheelchair or is blind, there is not the association that they are lacking in intelligence like there is with a stutterer.”
The truth is that many stutterers, such as Churchill himself, have a highly academic brain. According to The Stuttering Foundation, an organisation set up in 1947 to help sufferers worldwide, “Research indicates that people who stutter have the same range of intelligence. A stutterer knows what he or she wants to say, but simply has difficulty getting their words out. Speed of speech should not be confused with speed of thought.”
The terms stutter and stammer are interchangeable. Both are defined as a ‘communication disorder in which the flow of speech is broken by repetitions, (li-li-like this), prolongations (lllllllike this) or abnormal stoppages (silence) of sounds and syllables’.
It is not the product of an emotional shock nor the sign of an acutely nervous personality. In fact, there are four reasons, of which the first is genetic: approximately 60% of sufferers have a family member who shares their problem. Then there is child development; a child with other speech and language problems or delay is more likely to stammer. Recent research has also revealed a neurological reason – people who stammer process speech and language slightly differently in the brain.
Finally, there are family dynamics. I notice that my own 15-year-old son stammers increasingly in large family situations where everyone is talking at once. This experience is backed up by research stating that ‘high expectations and fast paced lifestyles can contribute to stammering’.
The disorder affects four times as many men as women ,and the prevalence is the same worldwide, so across all cultures and social groups. It usually occurs first at the age of two and a half to three years when language becomes more complex.
London mum Kim explains, “My son, Jamie, had started to repeat syllables and words just before his third birthday and I was really worried that his talking didn’t seem to be getting any better. The doctor told me it was just a phase and he would soon grow out of it. But I had had a stammer as a child and remembered very clearly the difficulties that I had faced”.
Kim rang the Helpline at the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children, which opened in 1993. It is named after the Monty Python actor and writer following his role in the film A Fish Called Wanda, where he played Ken, who stammered. Palin based the role on his own father who suffered all his life.
The Centre has 13 Specialist Speech and Language Therapists and receives referrals from doctors all over the UK. Unfortunately only those who live in the area of Camden and Islington Community Health Services NHS Trust receive funding to attend.
“This is the problem. While most NHS trusts still offer Speech Therapy, the number of those who no longer offer an adult service or even one for school age children is growing. It is so frustrating because stammering can be successfully treated but people just haven’t got the funds to pay for it,” Norbert, clearly annoyed, told me, adding that he recently spoke to a single mum with a severe stammer who could not get a job because of her impediment, so had no money to see a therapist, “It’s a vicious circle.”
Work is being undertaken to improve employers’ reaction to sufferers and to remind them that under the Equality Act it is illegal to discriminate on the grounds of a speech disorder, just as it is with any other disability.
“I left university 18 years ago and found that applying for jobs was impossible. In a competitive industry employers are looking at the smallest thing to differentiate candidates – so my stammer meant I was constantly overlooked,” sufferer Walter Scott tells me. This 41-year-old is now a successful Civil Servant in the Ministry of
Defence and in 2014 along with two soldier friends, both of whom stuttered, set up the Defence Stammering Network. Its aim was to raise awareness of the condition in the Armed Forces and the Civil Service.
“I had read about Ian Wilkie, who was a senior partner at Ernst and Young and had set up the Employee Stammering Network for his industry and wanted to do something in my own field,” says Walter, adding that one of the main aims is to signal to graduates like himself that when they apply for a job their stammer will be treated sympathetically, just as with any other disability.
Researching this piece, I have to admit that that interviewing people with a stammer is still difficult. The temptation to interrupt and to finish their sentences is overwhelming, but this is the worst thing to do. What a sufferer needs is time and patience from the listener.
“The tenser a person is to finish their words, the more confused the neurological pathways that form our speech become, so our stammer gets even worse,” Walter explains, adding that a lot of therapy will centre on helping the speaker relax. It is also far more successful if started before the age of eight.
For Liam, however, a two-week intensive group therapy course for young adults proved invaluable, “Through sharing ideas, problem solving and practising new skills I felt I had more control over my life.”
The final word must go to Musharaf. Last year, he appeared on our TV screens again in Stammer School, a therapy centre in South London. Their successful results again proved a tear jerker, with Mushy concluding, “No matter what you do, hard work always pays off in the long term.”
But this time he said it without his lap top.