Make sure stammered voices are heard

22 October, 2020

Dr Kaitlin Naughten is an ocean modeller with the British Antarctic Survey, specialising in ice shelf, ocean, and sea ice interactions around Antarctica. This International Stammering Awareness Day 2020, Kaitlin discusses what we can do as individuals and as institutions to support our colleagues who stammer. This blog is part of a series of activities for the Diversity in UK Polar Science Initiative.

Imagine, for a minute, that you are speaking to a room of 200 people and you have forgotten how to say the letter M. You can see the moment coming from miles away. Your whole body tenses up in anticipation. It feels, to paraphrase the great David Mitchell, like a witch has put a curse on your tongue to prevent you from speaking.

The room goes silent, and time seems to slow down. Audience members either stare at you in horror or awkwardly avert their eyes. By the time the M finally pops out, you’re physically and emotionally exhausted. This is bad news, because you are giving a talk about Models and there are many more Ms coming your way.

Kaitlin Naughten at the ocean
An oceanographer with an affinity for the ocean. Credit: Kaitlin Naughten

When I first interviewed for the British Antarctic Survey, I was convinced that if I stammered too much, I would forfeit my chance of getting the job. Surely they would only want to hire someone who spoke smoothly and confidently. I prepared a carefully-worded statement to explain away my stammer, to show that I was prepared to work twice as hard as a fluent person to succeed in science.

In hindsight, this seems ridiculous to me. I had internalised the attitude that stammering is a character flaw, a nervous habit, a sign of weakness. In fact, stammering is a neurological condition which is often genetic. It is legally recognised as a disability, entitled to the same rights and protections as someone in a wheelchair. Employment discrimination against people who stammer is illegal. Luckily, I got the job despite stammering throughout the interview, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the way I spoke wasn’t a big deal at BAS. On the contrary, many of my colleagues have been eager to learn about stammering, and have helped me view this part of myself more positively.

Having a disability means that you live in a world that was not designed for you – either for your body, or for your brain. The rules of society were not written with you in mind. Historically, the favoured approach to disability has been to “fix the person”, to eradicate their impairment using science and medicine. Of course, this is often not possible, or even desirable. Modern thinking has shifted more towards “fix the society”, to change the rules and expectations so people with disabilities have a better quality of life.

Kaitlin Naughten in front of a supercomputer
Kaitlin excited about visiting a supercomputer facility. Credit: Kaitlin Naughten

This way of thinking was pioneered by people with mobility impairments, who fought for decades for the right to accessible buildings. More recently, the term “neurodiversity” has been popularised by the autism community, among others, to advocate that such conditions should be valued and respected as a normal part of human variation. Stammering is late to this game, but a vibrant and vocal “stammering pride” movement has undoubtedly begun.

So what can we, as individuals and as institutions, do to support our colleagues who stammer? There are three things to remember:

1. Be a good listener. This one is easy – just wait patiently for us to finish speaking. Don’t interrupt us, or talk over us, or finish our sentences. Don’t laugh awkwardly or get a terrified expression on your face. Don’t avert your eyes, even if we do. Just wait. Most of my colleagues do this brilliantly, and it makes such a difference.

2. Give people who stammer extra time to speak. How many times have you attended a conference, and been told by the session chair that anyone speaking for more than their allotted 12 minutes will be cut off? It might seem fair to hold all speakers to an equal time limit, but this discriminates against people who cannot control their rate of speech. If I follow the same time limits as everyone else, I will be able to say significantly fewer words, and convey significantly less information. Because stammering is so variable, I’ll have to prepare three versions of my talk – short, medium, and long – and switch between them on the fly.

The only fair option is to provide extra time. You could book me a double slot, and I’ll probably finish early, or you could schedule me at the end and switch off the timer altogether. This is particularly important in an interview situation, where accommodations for people with disabilities are a legal requirement.

Well in advance of any conference presentation or job interview, I will write a carefully worded email explaining my disability and requesting extra time. Usually, this request is granted almost immediately. (Occasionally, I have to put up a fight.) I’m touched by how thoughtful some people are, such as the EGU session chair who went to great lengths to disable the automatic timekeeping system for me, or the director who personally intervened when a funding body brushed off my request. But it’s exhausting to always be the one to initiate these difficult conversations. I wish it was more common for disability accommodations to be a standard procedure, rather than a special request.

3. Ensure that stammered voices are heard. Stammering affects 1% of the population, but you wouldn’t know it from watching television or listening to the radio. Stammered voices are systematically erased from public life. We erase ourselves, because we’ve internalised the shame and stigma that society teaches us about stammering. We are erased by others, who assume that fluency is a prerequisite for speaking publicly. As a scientist, I have been denied media opportunities because people thought stammering made me unsuitable for the airwaves.

It’s only by sharing stammering with the world that it will become normalised. This will benefit fluent people and stammerers alike. Most importantly, it will help to dispel the myth that there is one narrow standard of qualities and abilities – a “default person” – to which everyone should strive to assimilate. By making time for people who stammer, we will make space for everybody.

Find out more about the Diversity in UK Polar Science Initiative and get involved.