Stammering at work - what you can do

Written by: Norbert Lieckfeldt
Published on: 18 Apr 2016

There are 1.3m people in the UK working for the NHS – and about 1% of adults in the UK are affected by stammering. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that at least 13,000 people who stammer work for the NHS. I say at least because it could be argued that, alongside the civil service and other public employers, the NHS is regarded as being more sympathetic to employees with disabilities.

Stammering is a serious communication disability – and its seriousness often does not necessarily stem from any difficulty communicating but from the stigma associated with it. People who stammer are often perceived as nervous, anxious, or less intelligent than fluent speakers. There’s an unconscious bias against people who stammer that all recruiters, colleagues and line managers should be aware of.

We know from recent research that stammering is caused by a neurodifference, by physical and functional differences in the brain which these days can be identified and measured. These differences only affect fluency of speech but have no impact whatsoever on cognition. As a population, people who stammer are no more or less intelligent than a comparative group of people who don’t stammer.

The Equality Act 2010 defines a disability as anything that has ‘a substantial adverse effect on one's ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities’ and stammering explicitly falls within that category. Both overt stammering (the prolongations and repetitions of sounds which, together with silent blocks, make up the stereotypical stammer) as well as covert stammering (the avoidance strategies which have been developed to hide the fact that you stammer) are covered by the Act. It is therefore important to offer reasonable adjustments at every stage of the employment journey.

For example, when advertising positions, best practice would be to highlight the communication skills required by the position as core competencies in the job specification, rather than have a blanket requirement for ‘excellent communication skills’ in the advert which - to a person who stammers - often means an undue emphasis on fluent communication.

The recruitment process itself, with its emphasis on spoken communication can also often discriminate against people who stammer. The job interview, and especially the increasingly common initial telephone interview seem designed to make success as hard to achieve as possible.

So why bother? Why indeed! Apart from the well-documented advantages of having a diverse workforce, research shows that people who stammer are more likely to bring qualities to the workplace that can be of great value to the employer. For example, strengths of people who stammer include listening skills, empathy, resilience, creativity and loyalty.