Tag Archives: Poetry

Stammering Pride & Prejudice, City Lit, 3rd Nov 2016

I must admit I arrived with a little apprehension, this was the first time I had attended a public event related to stammering. I was aware that I was wearing two hats, as a person who stammers and a psychologist who has a special interest in working with PWS.

The opening remarks by Mark Malcomson were warm and welcoming, there was a real sense of excitement in the room around exploring this novel and perhaps controversial way of viewing stammering. As a psychologist I’ve tended to think about how a person relates to their stammer and the psychological processes that may or may not help in living well with a stammer. Whilst I have an appreciation that the social world we live in will influence this, I had never fully considered that stammering as a problem can be viewed as a socially-constructed phenomenon and so I really was intrigued to learn more about the social model of stammering.

The first talk was by Prof Michael Boyle who is looking at how one might go about reducing stigma around stuttering. This was an interesting look at the stereotypes around stuttering and how these are reinforced in the media. Michael is clearly doing some great work looking at ways to influence public attitudes to stammering. One of the things presented in his research was how people sometimes associate stammering with anxiety and there was the idea that this is a negative stereotype that should be refuted, with stammering presented as something separate to anxiety. I was interested to find that this evoked an emotional reaction in me. As a psychologist, I was struck by the parallels in how PWS are stigmatised in many similar ways to people with mental health difficulties. We are consistently given messages about how we ‘should’ be… whether it be happy, calm or confident. Anything other than these desirable mind states are ‘wrong’ and need to ‘fixed’ or controlled. Those of us who don’t easily fit this, again whether it be disfluency, anxiety, lack of confidence, I could go on… are given the idea, even as children, that we must change this. This can lead to a sense of shame around  normal human experiences and emotions and presents a narrow and limited view of what it is ‘ok’ to be like. My concern with some of the ideas alluded to in Michael’s talk around anxiety as separate to stammering is that we risk reinforcing negative stereotypes around mental health and potentially invalidating the experience of the many PWS (me included) for whom stammering AND anxiety are intimately interrelated aspects of ourselves. Ultimately PWS will have a diverse range of experiences and personalities, so as a community let’s celebrate this diversity.

Next up was a hard-hitting and thought-provoking talk by Katy Bailey. Katy talked about how negative attitudes toward stammering is akin to a person without legs being denied a wheelchair. How we are constantly given the message that to be different is wrong or bad. She recounted her personal experience to highlight how the way that stammering is approached, even within the world of stammering research and therapy, can reinforce this ‘damaged’ narrative. Internalisation of these narratives leads to an internal struggle to control stammering. For me, Katy hit the nail on the head here! Social and cultural norms will tell us it’s wrong or bad when we don’t fit the mould, when you couple this with our problem-solving brains that tell us we should be able to control our internal experiences in the way we can our external world, we end up with the makings of a lifelong, futile struggle to control what can’t easily be controlled. Moreover, this struggle ultimately comes at the cost of pursuing a rich, and meaningful life. PWS often sacrifice important personal values and goals in an attempt to control or hide this part of themselves. These sacrifices or costs will come in small packages, a latte when you wanted a cappuccino, and really big packages, giving up on the dream of a particular career or vocation. Katy highlighted the role of acceptance or letting go of the struggle as a meaningful way forward for her in living with and coming to find meaning in her stammer. As a therapist who teaches acceptance-based therapies (namely Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT) and someone for whom working to let go of these struggles has been so liberating and empowering, Katy’s talk really resonated with me. Moreover, it highlights the need for more work clinically and research on the potential role for acceptance-based therapies (which are gaining momentum in the world of psychology) in working with PWS. Here the move is away from control and towards willingness to experience uncomfortable feelings, such as stammering, in order to move toward values life goals. This theme of self-acceptance was echoed later in discussions between Chris Constantino, Josh St Pierre and Dori Holte, and in Walter Scott’s talk about how his stammering was approached in school.

The rest of day saw talks by Iain Wilkie on the wonderful work he is doing with the Employers Stammering Network (ESN). Iain talked about how it’s to everyone’s benefit if people who stammer can feel more comfortable and able to be open about their stammer at work. Even more, people who stammer bring particular strengths and value to an organisation.

Other highlights included Sam Simpson and Rachel Everard talking about how speech therapy might inadvertently reinforce unhelpful social norms, and the need for PWS to develop a positive, empowering collective identity to be able to ‘live choicefully’. This echoed the conspiracy of silence Iain referred to earlier in the day. Sam and Rachel’s talks brought up the need to educate SLTs in this complex interplay between social, psychological and physical factors that affect how people live with a stammer.

Some light relief from the hard-hitting stuff was provided by Patrick Campbell, Ian Hickey and Nisar Bostan who entertained us with comedy and poetry. The day ended with a bang with Ian leading a reading from an excerpt from one of King George VI speeches. Anyone in the audience who was, as Ian beautifully put it , ‘lucky enough to stammer’ was invited to join in. Such a moving end to the day and truly put meaning to the idea of pride in stammering.

I’m so grateful I was able to be part of this day, I feel sure that these ideas are the start of something really important in changing and challenging how we conceptualise stammering both for PWS and crucially for the therapists working with them. Sam said it when she said PWS are best placed to challenge the status quo, from the inside AND I know therapists can play such a powerful role in empowering people to find the courage required to do this work. Let’s get to work!

 

Lorraine Maher-Edwards
Email: lorraine_maher@yahoo.co.uk
Twitter: @LorraineEdwar

 

Stuttering Pride

img_550c7b384eebdAs a speech and language therapist who works in the field of stuttering who doesn’t stutter, I’ve lately taken an interest in the notion of “dysfluency pride” or “stuttering pride”. I have been drawn to “stuttering pride” because of the similarities I see in the “gay pride” movement. As a gay man who felt a lot of shame about my own identity growing up, I noticed some common parallels that people who stutter and the LGBTQI faced (feeling isolated, passing as fluent or passing as straight because of societal pressure).

Many definitions of stuttering unknowingly situate stuttering as something that needs to be ‘fixed’ or ‘treated’. For example the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Health Related Problems (ICD-10) defines stuttering as “a speech disorder characterized by frequent sound or syllable repetitions, sound prolongations, or other dysfluencies that are inappropriate for the individual’s age. Similarly, the US National Library of Medicine’s website, MedlinePlus states that stuttering is “a speech disorder in which sounds, syllable, or words are repeated or last longer than normal. These problems cause a break in the flow of speech (called dysfluency)” (author’s own italicised words for emphasis).

Although helpful in the medical world, where science’s role is to fix the human body and to reduce impairment, these definitions do nothing to reduce the stigma attached to stuttering. One can look at how far the Deaf community has come along with human rights, advocacy and resistance against the removal of sign language (promotion of oral education). I often read about Deaf pride and the acceptance that being deaf is seen as a unique difference rather that a disorder that needs to be treated. An excellent book that discusses the tension between the medical model and the social model of disability is Andrew Solomon’s book, Far From the Tree. One of my favourite quotes from Solomon’s book is “Fixing is the illness model; acceptance is the identity model; which way any family goes reflects their assumptions and resources.” (pg. 37). Solomon’s book uncovers the complex journey parents embark on when their children are radically different to themselves. Solomon interviews parents of children with Autism, parents of children who are Deaf and many other parents of children who are different. Stuttering does not feature in Solomon’s book, but the content is relatable to parents of children who stutter nonetheless.

Following the International Stuttering Association World Congress/National Stuttering Association in Atlanta (July 5th – July 10th), my hope is that one day the world understands stuttering as much as it understands deafness. In the Deaf community, the use of sign language is central to Deaf identity, and attempts to limit its use are viewed as an attack. In a similar vein, for a person who stutters, stuttering is central to Stuttering identity and that society’s expectation for communication to be fluent places unfair demands on people who stutter.

I conclude this post with a wonderful poem by a student who I’ve been working with. This remarkable individual has taken ownership of her stutter and together we are working on ‘letting her stuttering out’ and for her to ‘give herself permission to stutter.’ I encourage you to see stuttering as a unique difference, one that celebrates diversity of the human race and one that teaches the world how to really listen.

Stuttering by Brenna (aged 10)

Stuttering is good, stuttering is bad,

Stuttering can make you happy, stuttering can make you sad.

Stuttering can teach, stuttering can learn,

Stuttering can cost, stuttering can earn,

Stuttering can grow, stuttering can shrink,

Stuttering can be stupid, but it can make you think,

Stuttering can be anger, stuttering can be fine

Stuttering belongs to lots of people, but stuttering is mine…

 Voon Pang

Picture1Voon Pang, Bsc HCS, MNZSTA, CPSP is a speech-language pathologist at the Stuttering & Treatment Research Trust in Auckland, New Zealand. Voon blogs for the Stuttering Foundation of America and has travelled to the United States, United Kingdom and Australia to be better equipped at helping those who stutter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Totally OK to Stammer at Work (2/2)

Iain smile photoMartyn: “Do you ever read poetry?”

Me : “No. Of course not.”

Martyn: “You might try it sometime. David Whyte1, something like that.”

It had been just a short conversation but, as usual, his intuition was spot on.

I’d been discussing with Martyn Brown, my Executive Coach at Ashridge2, my progress towards becoming more of myself at work, including being more open about my stammer.

But poetry, that was a weird one. I was curious.

Fast forward 5 years and here I am gratefully responding to an invitation from intandem to write about how poetry has helped me to forge a much healthier relationship with my stammer. In last month’s blog post I wrote how the Employers Stammering Network3 is aiming to make it “Totally OK to stammer at work”, whereas this article is shaped more towards my own personal journey.

Over recent years, I’ve used my experience of many years in business to confront a series of questions that I wish I’d known the answers to at the start of my career.

And nowadays, I wonder what advice I’d offer to my younger self if he asked me these questions – and, to help his imagination, what lines of poetry might I even share with him? Here’s how our Q&A session might sound:

Q 1 How much will my stammer restrict my career?

A 1: It may surprise you, because you feel so ashamed when sometimes you can’t even say your own name, but the answer rests almost entirely within your own control. Your stammer can dominate your career or it can be almost completely irrelevant. Truly!

For me the big realisation was that it was within my gift to choose how I saw myself with a stammer – either as someone who’s shame and self-oppression for having a stammer would continue all my life – or as someone who could accept over time that it’s “totally OK for me to stammer – even at work”.

That’s so easy to write, yet it took me years to get here. And one of the steps helping along the way was learning that by living more choice-fully in relation to my stammer, I could influence for better or worse the outcomes for my own career. This point about consciously making difficult choices lies at the heart of the closing lines of Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’:

 

THE ROAD NOT TAKEN (Extract)4

Robert Frost

 

“I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –

I took the one less travelled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

 

Q 2 : How will I ever become more comfortable with speaking in public?

A 2: For people who stammer, speaking in public is often a step too far – and we avoid it at all costs.

Throughout my career, my relationship with speaking up has been erratic to say the least! My progress has come from taking calculated risks, some successful and others not – but doing it in my own way for better or worse. Stubborn, you might call it. I prefer to call it courageous!

It’s not been easy at all – but it’s definitely been worth it.

This sometimes unbearably difficult path of making changes in mid-life is a core theme of some of David Whyte’s work, and it’s almost as if ‘Start Close In’ was written with the courageous step of speaking up in public for the first time in mind .

 

START CLOSE IN (Extract)5

David Whyte

 

“Start Close in

Don’t take the second step

or the third

start with the first

thing,

close in,

the step

you don’t want to take.

 

Start with

the ground

you know,

the pale ground

beneath your feet

your own

way of starting

the conversation.”

 

Q3: How can I cope when I’m having a bad day with my stammer?

A 3: Some days are just difficult stammering days. You’re tired, nervous or slightly out of sorts – that’s life.

And yes, there’s still pressure not to stammer at work and, even though I’ve learnt to rise above it, it can still feel bruising when it’s been a tough stammering day.

Learning self-acceptance, resilience and perspective has been crucial to coping with those days. Like Derek Walcott’s raw realisation in “Love after Love”, it’s meant looking in the mirror and accepting myself. Accepting that my stammer has always been part of me – and not to try to make it a stranger.

 

LOVE AFTER LOVE (Extract)6

Derek Walcott

 

The time will come

when, with elation,

you will greet yourself arriving

at your own door, in your own mirror,

and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.

You will love again the stranger who was yourself.”

 

Q4: Where can I find advice, support and kindred spirits?

A4: Nowadays there is so much support and friendship out here for people who stammer.

Firstly, I’d point towards the British Stammering Association7 (“BSA”) the national charity for people in the UK who stammer.

And secondly to our Employers Stammering Network, an arm of the BSA, where our goal is simply to make it “Totally OK to Stammer at Work”. Don’t worry, we never discuss poetry, that’s just me!

Both the BSA and ESN offer a spirit of welcome – from people who stammer – that’s warm and genuine. Just visit the BSA Closed Facebook group to get a feel for it.

Which brings me to my final poem, from David Whyte’s recent collection ‘Pilgrim’, which develops the theme of arriving amongst strangers who themselves have walked a similar, searching journey.

 

CAMINO (Extract)8

David Whyte

 

“…….other people

seemed to know you even before you gave up

being a shadow on the road and came into the light,

even before you sat down with them,

broke bread and drank wine,

wiped the wind-tears from your eyes:

pilgrim they called you again. Pilgrim.”

 

Before ending, I have an invitation for you.

Please start a conversation with someone about how it’s “Totally OK to Stammer at Work”. You might choose a friend, a colleague, perhaps your boss.

Every conversation is an important step forward in improving workplace culture towards stammering – and if you’re stuck for how to start, you will surely find inspiration in the opening lines of ‘Start Close In’ above…….

I’m keen to hear how you get on!

poetry wordle

Iain Wilkie

Iain Wilkie is a Senior Partner at EY and the Co-Chairman of the Employers Stammering Network (“ESN”). All views and opinions expressed in this article are entirely his own.

 

References

1. David Whyte – Poet, author, lecturer. www.davidwhyte.com

2. Martyn Brown – Business Director, Organisational and Executive Development, Ashridge Business School, and Ashridge Programme Leader for EY.

3. Employers Stammering Network is operated by the British Stammering Association (see 6 below). For further information contact please email either iwilkie@uk.ey.com or Norbert Lieckfeldt at esn@stammering.org or mail@esn.org.uk

4. “The poetry of Robert Frost”, ed Edward Connery Lathem (Jonathan Cape 1967), Random House Ltd, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London SW1V 2SA. “Staying Alive”, edited by Neil Astley, 2002, Bloodaxe Books Ltd, Highgreen, Torset, Northumberland, NE48 1RP.

5. David Whyte, “River Flow”, New & Selected poems 1984-2007. Many Rivers Press, P O Box 868, Langley, WA 98260, USA. www.davidwhyte.com © David Whyte.

6. Roger Housden 2003 “Ten poems to change your life”, Hodder & Stoughton, 338 Euston Road, London NW1 3BH, UK. Farrar, Straws and Giroux LLC, Collected Poems of Derek Walcott, 1996. © Derek Walcott.

7. British Stammering Association, 15 Old Ford Road, London E2 9PJ. For information contact www.stammering.org or 020 -8983 1003 or nl@stammering.org.

8. “Pilgrim – poems by David Whyte, 2012”. Many Rivers Press, P O Box 868, Langley, WA 98260, USA. www.davidwhyte.com. © David Whyte 2012.

Totally OK to Stammer at Work (1/2)

Iain smile photo “Here comes Iain WWWWilkie” was the greeting from a fluent-speaking former colleague at a reunion party in a London pub last week.

Ten years ago his words would’ve put me firmly on the back foot, but these days I grab such playground comments as an opportunity to talk about how enlightened employers are now viewing stammering as an issue to be recognised and supported. So I launched straight in and explained how two years ago the formation of The Employers Stammering Network (“ESN”) was a giant leap forward in our aim to make it “Totally OK to stammer at work”. As we chatted, my former colleague initially looked awkward but he then started listening attentively and, when I was leaving, he suggested we meet again for lunch sometime soon.

So what can we learn from this unexpected conversation about stammering in the workplace?

Firstly, the stigma of having a stammer at work is still perpetuated by many good people across many fine organisations. This is largely under-pinned by ignorance rather than malice.

Secondly, most people, including many who stammer, have never had an informed conversation about stammering in their lives. There is, as Norbert Lieckfeldt my Co-Chairman at the ESN says, “a conspiracy of silence around stammering”. Yet, once engaged in a conversation, people are often eager to learn and happy to become supporters.

Thirdly, the ESN is proving attractive to leading private and public sector employers who’ve never thought before about stammering. They’re keen to ensure their employees are not held back from reaching their full potential just because of their dysfluency.

So you might ask, what is the purpose of the ESN and how is it going after its first two years?

Put simply, our purpose is to create an employment culture in the UK where it’s “Totally OK to stammer at work”. More officially it’s “To help employers in supporting the development of their people who stammer, thereby enabling employees to achieve their full career potential, for the benefit of both the individual and the employer”. Like most purpose statements, it’s a bit of a mouthful!

Since launching with the energetic support of the Rt Hon Ed Balls in May 2013, we now have 13 [1] major organisations as members, collectively employing over 400,000 people in the UK alone. Our growth saw us recognised as one of the UK’s “Most Awesome Networks” in February 2015 by Inclusive Networks [2] and we have two more major employers lining up to join. However, it’s the support that we feel all around us that truly has Norbert, myself and many others believing that we’re on our way to achieving our transformational aim to make it “Totally OK to stammer at work”.

Most encouragingly of all, there are many employees who’ve already benefitted from their employer being an ESN member. An ESN colleague at a leading bank stepped into a much better role after gaining the confidence to ‘go for’ the job he really wanted. Another ESN colleague decided to talk openly about his stammer in front of a promotion panel in a way he’d never have done a year earlier – and got the job! And a senior manager with a pronounced stammer at my own firm told me “You changed my life!” It doesn’t get any more transformational or emotional than that!

One of the biggest challenges for the ESN is helping our members to succeed in getting stammering talked about in their own organisations. This isn’t about adding it to a wish-list in a strategy paper, but about how to change long-embedded cultural attitudes towards stammering, like those I encountered in the pub last week. It requires the public commitment of the leadership, the identification of role-models and courageous conversations that ask for and explain how to achieve that change. As Lou Gerstner, former Chairman of IBM said, “Culture isn’t one aspect of the game – it is the game” [3].

Our experience with the ESN is that it’s a tough, untrodden path that we’ve started to take; a sentiment that’s expressed beautifully in this translation from Antonio Machado’s poem Cantares:

”Pathmaker there is no path
You make the path by walking
By walking you make the path”

After all, we’re trying to get organisations to embrace something that most of us, dysfluent or not, have spent much of our lives feeling uncomfortable even talking about. However, it’s a fresh willingness to enter into courageous and vulnerable conversations that’s at the heart of the ESN’s opportunity – and in next month’s blog I’ll share insights into my own journey from a shy, underperforming employee into a more confident and fully engaged partner at EY.

In the ESN, we’re learning to be patient, to take the knock-downs and to overcome our doubts. Yet in just two years since launching, with the changes that we’re increasingly seeing in employees who stammer and with ever-expanding awareness of stammering amongst employers, it’s already become “OK to Stammer” in some parts of the UK workplace. Now that really is a path worth walking.

Iain Wilkie

Iain Wilkie is a Senior Partner at EY and the Co-Chairman of the Employers Stammering Network   (“ESN”). All views and opinions expressed in this article are entirely his own.

If you or your employer would like information about the ESN, please email either iwilkie@uk.ey.com or Norbert Lieckfeldt at esn@stammering.org or mail@esn.org.uk

 

[1] Current ESN members: A4E, BrightHouse, CitiGroup, Defence College for Health Education & Training, DHL, EY, First Group, Lloyds Banking Group, Prudential, RBS, Santander, Shell, & Warrington Borough Council.

[2] Inclusive Networks www.inclusivenetworks.co.uk

[3] Louis V Gerstner Jr, “Who says Elephants Can’t Dance?”, Harper Collins

 

 

 

The power of poetry

In My Garden
I don’t go into my garden.
I look at it from my window.
In my garden there are
birds, animals, trees and flowers.

Wood pigeons strut and coo right
next to the squirrels.
There is a special pigeon who maybe
nesting in a tree.
Taking a twig from one tree
to another.

The squirrels (grey not red)
love my pine tree.
There are many cones, they eat part of each
cone, they eat a lot.

In the bottom of my
neighbour’s garden
there is a huge willow tree.
In the spring, parakeets settle on it.
Just that tree – nowhere else.

I see them from my window.

And the foxes – they love my garden –
lie in the sun.
Sometimes they look at me and I look back.
It is a good garden.
There are no children and no dogs or cats.
Only me, looking from the window.
Just them, and me.
We are still friends.

LC, 2013