Looking back to when I was a teenager, had I sat down and thought really hard about all of the different challenges that I would face as an undergraduate student, I might not have decided to go to university.
The reason for this is that I had a severe stammer; I had a real difficulty saying my own name, or ordering anything at a restaurant or shop. These simple facts have profound implications: communication is a human necessity, and its importance during education cannot be understated.
Some of those challenges I would face at university were obvious: making presentations so I could complete assessments and participating in group work. There were less obvious challenges, such as meeting new people and participating in clubs and societies. If truth be told, there were these days that I just wanted to hide away from the world, but for whatever reason, I didn’t. I just got on with it. I got on with it, since there were no other choices.
On 19 January 2019 I attended a conference at SOAS in London by a charity called STUC, an abbreviation of ‘Stammerers through university consultancy’. STUC has a tagline, which reads: ‘supporting university students and staff who stammer’.
STUC was formed by Claire Norman, a languages graduate. As a student Claire was struck by the lack of constructive advice that her university gave her when she was required to complete a French oral examination. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but the advice was something like ‘slow down’, or ‘breathe’ (bits of advice that others have, indeed, been given me over the years). Her idea was to create an organisation that could offer help and guidance to universities with a view to (ultimately) helping their students.
The conference was the first of its kind, and was sponsored by Professor Deborah Johnston, PVC of Teaching and Learning at SOAS. It featured a series of half hour talks, and then was followed by a panel discussion. What follows is a short summary of each of the talks, followed by a quick summary of some of the points during the panel discussion, and then a set of closing thoughts and reflections.
After a short presentation by Rachel Everard (BSA website), who is the service director of the British Stammering Association, it was onto Iain Wilkie. Iain is a former partner of the consultancy E&Y. He spoke about ‘thriving at work with a stammer’, and made an interesting point about leadership. Leadership not only involves leading, it also means addressing and discussing potential, actual or perceived weaknesses. This requires us to have courageous conversations with others, with a view to connecting and informing. Implicit in these points was the importance of understanding (and embracing) the social model of disability.
Abed Ahamed (BSA website) is a secondary school teacher, and is a PWS (person who stammers). Abed shared some phrases that resonated with me, such as ‘speak to thrive rather than survive’ and ‘talk and connect with others’. What struck me was Abed’s determination to become a teacher. I remember him saying teaching was a ‘second option’ for some of his peers, whereas for Abed, it was a primary motivator and objective. A personal reflection is that when I was his age, I had completely ruled out teaching as a career choice (only to embrace it years later when I became appointed as a part time tutor for The Open University).
Next up was Lindsey Pike from the University of Bristol. Lindsey spoke about the importance of staff networks (Bristol University) within a university that can offer support for different groups of staff. I was interested to hear that there was also a network for staff who stammer at Bristol. For a brief period of time (before other commitments needed to take precedence) I was a member of an OU network called EnablingStaff@OU (OU equality and diversity resources page). A further personal reflection was that the power of the network (of course) comes from its members, and the personal contacts that each member has. A further thought is a wider set of networks can also be gained by joining a trade union, which can help with institutional and national issues regarding accessibility and disability.
Grant Meredith gave the first talk after the lunch break. I’ve met grant a couple of times: one at a BSA conference (where he talked about being a dean at the university where he worked), and briefly during a trip to Melbourne. Since we last met, Grant has been carrying out his doctoral research that is exploring the experiences of Australian students who stutter. One of the points I noted down included the idea of ‘concessional bargaining’, which is where students might trade off potential grades against speech avoidance activities.
After Grant was Claire Tupling, Senior Lecturer in Postgraduate Studies at the University of Derby. Claire's presentation complemented Grant’s very well. Through her university, Claire gained a small amount of funding to carry out research into the experiences of university staff who stammer. Claire’s research fits into a subject that can be called Disability Studies ‘which sits between social sciences and the humanities’, and addresses themes such as how disability can be socially constructed. I noted down the phrase: “the academic workplace is frequently a key site in the construction of individuals’ disablement”. Some of the themes that I noted down from Claire’s talk included people becoming ‘accidental academics’ and there being ‘additional labour’ that accompanies (and may counter) the potentially disabling effects of stammering.
The final talk was by Deborah Johnson who spoke about ‘stammering and inclusion in the rapidly changing context of universities’. Deborah referred to research by Boyle, Blood and Blood (2009) about the ‘Effects of perceived causality on perceptions of persons who stutter’, the challenges that accompany group-based assessment and the importance of inclusive learning and teaching. Another point to bear in mind is that, in some cases, potential pedagogic innovations may negatively affect people who stammer.
The panel discussants included Claire Norman, myself, Beulah Samuel-Ogbu (SOAS Disabled students and carers’ officer), Mandy Taylor (trustee of the BSA) and Rory Sheridan (former UoA student, and visual artist).
Claire had prepared some questions for us to discuss, just in case there were silences from the audience: “(1) would any panellists like to share a university-related experiences? (2) what should students or staff do if the university’s Disability Support is not providing sufficient help? (3) why aren’t university Mental Health Support and Disability Support teams collaborating more? (4) In what ways can the Equality Act 2010 assist students and staff who stammer? (5) What would you advise if a student didn’t want to choose a preferred module because the assessment methods were heavily emphasised on speech?” Even though we all had questions, we need not have worried; there was a lot to talk about.
Some points that I noted down were: the importance of removing ‘fluency’ from assessment criteria (instead, this might be replaced by ‘effectiveness of communication’), that stammering can affect non assessed work (since students and tutors might have discussions to help with essays), and that inclusion relates to organisational culture, and thinking about inclusion for PWS can have a positive effect on all students.
In some respects this was the first ‘academic’ conference that I’ve been to that has focussed on a single disability (I’ve put the term ‘academic’ in quotes, since although talks were given, papers were not presented, but everything that was said was linked to the academic context).
I sensed that although we had talked about many different issues and felt there was still a lot to talk about, and a lot of practice experience to share between the different groups of people who attended (parents, speech and language therapists, university staff and students). There’s a lot that can be said about assessment and how to help students become settled. Interestingly, the theme of mental health emerged a number of times (the link here is that people who stammer can sometimes be affected by mental health issues).
Attending this conference made me reflect on the good points and the challenging points of my own university experiences. Some suggestions and actions were thoughtful and appropriate: some reasonable adjustments were made without question or debate, and were very welcome. Other actions were thoughtless and inappropriate: one tutor suggested that his church might be able to offer ‘a cure’.
A personal opinion is that there may well be value in connecting up with other disability groups or organisations; I feel that more influence can be gained if different groups work together. This said, it’s important to find a way to ensure that the educators are educated and myths are dispelled. Organisations such as STUC can play an important role with both of these tasks.