“1% of you stammer”

Charlie Barnes, from the Department of Work and Pensions delivered a talk this month about his speech and as part of our series to share the stories of people who stammer, he’s shared his speaking notes.

Charlie Barnes

Talk to Strategy Directorate, Department for Work and Pensions 14 March 2018

My name is Charlie Barnes. I’m a civil servant. I’m a scout leader. I’m a husband and I’m a father.

I also happen to have a stammer.

I say ‘also’ because it’s that first list that defines me, not that I have a stammer.

Though I have to admit, it wasn’t always like that.

Growing up in the 70s and 80s – Jesus! Yes, my stammer defined me. Every day was a list of gates to get through. And I would go to bed and it would be exactly the same the next day, forever. 35p for the bus and the ‘oy, people are waiting’. Reading aloud in class and praying that the lesson bell would go before the teacher had a chance to play to the crowd and ‘say ha ha can’t you read yet’. Registration, twice a day and the inevitable sniggering and the retribution in the playground. Children who even then were discovering a way to demonstrate their superhuman ability of being able to say words when they wanted to – even if they were unkind words.

I remember at primary school asking my mum if there were jobs where you didn’t have to talk to people, and she said only if you want to move boxes around a warehouse.

I think it was meant as a disincentive? But you know, it kind of cheered me up as at least there would be something. An ability to say words when they wanted to WAS a superhuman ability. It was quite beyond me. It still is.

However now I have a different attitude, partly because I’m now older and desensitised, but also because society has moved on a little bit.

In the 1970s though a landmark moment was when Open All Hours came on TV, starring Ronnie Barker whose comic turn was that he had a stutter. From that moment every child with a stammer, found out the hard way that they were different, and that it was alright to make fun of them. Even now if you put Ronnie Barker in front of me I have a physical reaction and I can’t get to the television fast enough. At around that time ‘The Stutter Rap’ also gave extra playground amusement. That was the backdrop to school.

But I’m lucky to have grown up in the 1970s. In the 16th century people with stammers were deemed possessed and were condemned for witchcraft. By the 1890s they’d progressed to electric shock treatment. Enlightened times… So Ronnie Barker seems very benevolent in comparison.

We do perpetuate negativity though. When you do read about stammering in the media it is typically some feel-good story about someone who has “conquered” or “overcome” their stammer. They might have made a speech at a wedding, or something. Which is fantastic, and it’s life changing. But it’s not really fact. There is no cure, and there’s a myth that being peddled that people who stammer are somehow just slightly less capable, just a little less confident, a bit less able to assimilate their thoughts into language. And that if only they try hard enough they can be cured. If you don’t you’re lazy or inept. There is no cure. If you’ve got it, you’ve got it. End of.

In many books a mad or bad character often has a stammer. It’s synonymous with ridicule and idiocy. You’ll read “ ‘n n n no’. He stammered, nervously.” Or ‘she has a nervous stammer’. I have had feedback, in DWP, from job interviews where I’ve been told I was unsuited to be an HEO because I lacked confidence. Stammering is not about ‘confidence’ – stammering is about, well… stammering!

So anxiety is NOT a cause of stammering.

However when society is negative it’s no wonder that people are anxious of stammering in public. So yes anxiety and stammering often go together – but the cause and effect are the other way round.

There is a term known as the stammering iceberg.

What you see –or rather hear – is on the surface.

You might think I’m – relatively – fluent right now. But I assure you I’ve been multi-tasking here. I’m reading some key points in notes, but at the same time also skimming ahead looking for problems, substituting words which I don’t want to take a gamble on – which isn’t a good behaviour though I can’t beat myself up about it too much – and trying to talk at the same time. It’s just what I do. It can mean I’m exhausted after talking for a long time.

There are other things going on though. What you hear is the least of it.. There are thoughts and feelings, much repressed, there is a lot of pent up anger, embarrassment, and shame in many people with a stammer.

But that iceberg can be melted, at least a little.

It’s worst in what you call a covert stammerer. That’s someone who will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid being outed as a stammerer. They’ll actively avoid situations where they’ll come unstuck. Success for them is when a meeting goes really badly, or their relationship ends, because they won’t express themselves, but hey at least no-one knows they have a stammer! Doing this is a nightmare, as the whole behaviour around avoidance becomes worse than the stammer and it can be crippling.

An overt stammerer is obvious – they stammer! They’re quite open about it. Some people can be quite militant about it. When people start to ‘own’ their stammer and see it as a key part of who they are, some find the iceberg begins to shrink. The hidden feelings of shame get a bit smaller.

Of course most people are someone between the two extremes. Personally, I don’t mind people knowing. After all, it’s me, if someone doesn’t like it, that’s not MY problem. I’ve had a lifetime trying to fit in and when I reached my thirties I had a moment where I just went ‘pfffttt.. Whatever. What will be will be’. The trigger for that was being very badly bullied by a boss, and I could do absolutely nothing about it. And I’m far happier for that moment where I just gave up and said, you know what folks, THIS IS ME.

But at the same time, yes, of course you do want to fit in. And yes society does – still – have expectations. I confess I find it more difficult around the smooth-talking corridors of Caxton than I do elsewhere. I do feel the pressure of talking with the exactitude demanded by the policy world, swift to red-pen any anomaly or word which isn’t precise.

So I also get lots of people telling me I’m…. thoughtful. Yeah. Maybe. However sometimes I’m just changing my words – just like I did then when I meant say ‘but’ .

The words that defeat me are the ones I can’t change. When I have to give my bank card details, or give my postcode. Or sitting around in those big meetings where you’re turning over your name and your business area on your tongue and wondering if it will come out, or if someone will say ‘ha ha don’t you know your own name’. You count down the people and then it’s you. If you’re lucky you say your bit and the eye of Sauron passes over you and moves on. Those are still, even now, the very worst parts of meetings. In other parts you just can’t shut me up in a meeting. I am an enthusiast and I do care about things.

And in that sense I guess you would call me an extrovert. I – eventually – refused to be put in that career path of pushing boxes around a warehouse. I don’t think I’ve had an overly impressive career, but for me, yeah I’m ok with it. My stammer is what it is and I’m not a militant who if I had a mobility disability would be demanding the levelling of every staircase in the UK.  I accept I am not going to read the 6 o clock news on BBC1. I am not going to be an air traffic controller or a barrister (although there is a traffic controller who has a stammer!). That’s too much for my stammer. But I accept that in the same way I know that Team Sky are not about to ring me to race the Tour de France for them. My heart and lungs and legs are not up to it. You are who you are.

Expectations of society do make it difficult though. A stark example was when I was 18 and I wanted to get an Army bursary to go to University and take up a place at Sandhurst when I graduated.

I did what I recently learned in a Myers Briggs session is my usual ENTJ thing and did alright in the group exercises, and the planning exercises and the group discussions over the three days, but on the strength of a 30-minute interview with a Colonel I was ruled out on the basis that I would be unable to issue commands. And that was that.

When I was 21 and in my second year of uni I tried again and did the same again. But this time a Colonel flicked through the notes from last time and the first question he asked was if I still had a stutter. I said yes, and that was that. No more interview. He said there was no point. I left early. You have two chances in your lifetime.

And of course that was how I found myself, in 2003, in Basra, as a Captain, commanding a body of infantry. And to make a nice business strategy link, it’s all down to data.

Back in those days of not being able to share data very well the regular army and the territorial army, although they had the same selection board, had slightly different administrations, in the same building but in different rooms. So I joined the TA and when later they asked me to apply to be an officer I left the ‘have you applied before’ box blank, and tried my covert stammerer best to not out myself in the three day selection. And that was the start of my army career!

I spent 2 years as a private then was commissioned 2nd Lt then later Lt, as a rifle platoon commander, then was captain at the early age of 26, when I was a company second in command, mortar platoon commander, various jobs. Although army reserve, I did several tours as reinforcement to the regular army, including a month in the Malaysian jungle, spent a lot of time in Germany and did lots of things. The Iraq war was one of those.

 And I have to say the only problems I ever had were from some more senior officers who initially would think I sounded different and not how army officers spoke. But when I showed I could map-read my men to the right little spot of moorland in the small hours of a winters night, and that my first infantry platoon trusted me enough to call me ‘boss’ as opposed to the obligatory ‘sir’, they’d eventually change their mind.

But I think that’s another point – the need to prove all the time, and overcome negative perception. People come and go, especially at work, and then it all starts again. That 1970s backdrop thing is never that far away.

We’ve not talked about what causes stammering.

So for many years no-one really knew. And there were all sorts of theories. In the 18th C it was believed that inarticulation was physical and so certain parts of the tongue were removed by surgeons seeking the perfect shape. In the 19th C the rise of the managerial middle class also gave rise to the new profession of elocution teachers, who were convinced that speech could be relearned. And here there was a ready market. Its leading proponent was a man called James Hunt. In 1930 a man called Wendell Johnson arrived at the University of Iowa and declared ‘stammering begins in the ear of the patient’. He believed that concerns expressed by the parent at an early age when the child was developing speech convinced the child that they were different and they became stammerers. This theory dominated speech therapy into the middle 1970s.

Neither Mr Hunt or Mr Johnson actually cured their own stammers though – so draw your own conclusions.

In the last ten years scientists have found what causes it, through MRI scanning.

Just above the left ear there is an area which processes what is being said and begins to form a response. This passes to an arc of so-called white matter which finesses it and draws on learned memory – words and sounds. It then draws on the cerebellum for the precision, co-ordination and the timing. Then its to the motor cortex which is where the muscles are controlled. And there are a lot. The diaphragm, the larynx, the glottis, the tongue, and so forth. The whole thing is highly complex and like any complex system a single point of failure is catastrophic to the whole.

There are two things different in the brains of people who stammer. The first is that the fibres in this white matter are organised slightly differently in the pre-motor cortex. This means the instructions from one area never quite make their destination properly and the pre-motor cortex area is underactive in people who stammer, with far less electrical activity than in fluent people. Or so I understand.

The second thing is that the listening to speech area and the areas involved in speech production are totally synchronised in fluent speakers. Scans of the electrical waves show that in people who stammer they are not aligned.

And that, my friends, is why we stammer.

So it turns out those chaps in the 18th C were right after all. It does have a physical cause. Thank God they stuck with tongues though rather than having a go at brain surgery.

So why does it differ from day to day? Well, the same as anyone else. A late night, being stressed, or being frustrated at work, or unhappy, affects everyone, with a stammer or not. But with a stammer the extra demand on the white matter can overload it to the point of actually blocking speech. Every one of you will have experienced apprehension before a job interview. You feel that in your stomach and you actually call it butterflies in your stomach. However it isn’t stomach at all, it’s the diaphragm and its muscular tension. The diaphragm is absolutely critical for speech. Talking about that job interview scenario, imagine your normal nerves and layering in over the top of that the breathing exercises and speech practice and over the top of that the extra anxiety from your uncertainty that you’ll actually be fluent at all – never mind the content of what you want to say. In DWP you’re marked on your competency evidence – believe me, that’s only half of it.

And that brings me to what you can do.

Just preserving the interview scenario a moment longer, it doesn’t take much. I was once a call centre team leader and my interview involved a presentation. In my two years in that job I never once did a presentation. If you recruit for a role, then put people through the right hoops but not unnecessary ones.

But the big thing is, just ask. Someone once asked ‘what can I do to help?’ and I replied ‘there’s no need now because you’ve just done it.’ He had effectively said it’s ok to be me’. And frankly that is the perfect reasonable adjustment.

I do now mention it at interview, not as a caveat but to explain that I have a stammer, I use a breathing technique, it might not work all the time but I don’t want you to be uncomfortable about it. The other is to not assume. Don’t assume that someone with a stammer can’t do things. Like Bruce Willis or Michael Palin or Emily Blunt. Don’t assume they can’t talk in public – look at Ed Balls. Or sing – Ed Sheeran. And Colonel whatever your name was in 1989, don’t assume that the 18 year old in front of you won’t be commanding infantry in the second gulf war.

Lastly, know this. There is no cure. The most anyone can do is to try to control it. Usually through breathing techniques and speech exercises every day. For some reason it helps, I don’t know why. But its always there, it always wanting to trip me up, and sometimes I’m the windscreen and sometimes I’m the fly. If you understand that, it helps people like us.

You will all know someone who stammers and some of you may work with one. They are 1% of the population, consistent across the world, and in the ratio of 80% male, 20% female. That’s also consistent. So that’s about 700,000 in the UK. I would doubt that proportions are evenly spread across every industry. Certainly in this team in DWP there don’t seem many of us, I knew of several when I was an operations manager, none of whom were in management positions. I suspect that many people do instead opt to push boxes around a warehouse and don’t realise their potential.

But that’s where you come in.

There is information out there you can look at. The Civil Service has a stammering network and we all support each other. This lunch and learn today is part of that.

They recently published an employers guide, quite short, which is really good for understanding how you can meet the needs of stammerers.

I’m going to leave it there, you’ll understand when I tell you I’ve had enough of talking!

However if you have any questions I’ll be happy to answer them.

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