Fighting stammering stigma by changing our words

trustee_patrick_edGuest blog by Patrick Campbell, a British Stammering Association trustee, who has written a paper challenging the way people describe stammering and unwittingly contribute to stigma.

A diverse and inclusive workplace is being increasingly appreciated to be vital to maximising the abilities and talents of all employees. In a recent blog post, Sir Jeremy Heywood, Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service, has described it as a ‘moral imperative’ which delivers better public services.

Stigma is the adversary of this inclusivity. Stigma towards different races, religions, sexualities and disabilities can lead us to belittle colleagues, to hinder their integration into teams, and ultimately to preclude their effective contributions at work.

We all carry stigmatised views. They are the mark of living in an imperfect society. What we need to is challenge all these stigmatised views that we find within ourselves and others when they arise.

Unfortunately, stigma can be so woven into the fabric of society that it can be easy to overlook. One particularly insidious example is our language. The words we use are not innocent. They express a particular perspective, value, or preference as our language is wrapped up in culture.

The language we commonly hear, speak and read is from an imperfect society; the language we use has become stigmatised. My experience of this is as a person who stammers. Having a stammer and speaking in a way which is ‘different’ from other people, has been proven to have a significant effect on the individual:

  • Children who stammer are more likely to be bullied in school (Davis et al., 2007)
  • People who stammer are at higher risk of mental health problems than the general
    population (Iverach and Rapee, 2014)
  • People who stammer can be excluded from employment and find it more challenging to get a job (Butler, 2014)

A commonly used term to hear for a person who stammers is ‘overcome’: “Patrick, you did really well to overcome your stammer during the presentation”. At first look the sentence seems positive even inclusive but look deeper. Stammering as a disability had to be counteracted; it wasn’t simply an accepted part of the individual. It tells the individual they will only be accepted at work if they continue produce results which outweigh the negative impact of their speech disability. Not exactly conducive to an inclusive, fair workplace.

We recently produced a paper at the British Stammering Association that explores the use of language around stammering and affirms positive changes in language to reduce stigma in society against stammering: The Way We Talk by Patrick Campbell. There’s a simple table below to give some practical examples which we can all use to be more inclusive towards people who stammer, whether you’re describing someone, talking to a stammerer, or writing a piece of journalism.

But if you’re short on time, just remember the words we use are important. Reflect on the connotations the words you choose convey: they may surprise you.

From: The Way We Talk by Patrick Campbell






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