Stammering at work - what you can do

Norbert Lieckfeldt

As part of our focus this month on stammering as a disability, Norbert Lieckfeldt, Chief Executive of The British Stammering Association highlights some of the stigma attached to stammering and suggests ways in which employers in the NHS can support employees with a stammer.

Author: Norbert Lieckfeldt

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.

People who stammer often live with the stigma, own it and act accordingly. Rather than share the fact they stammer and ask for reasonable adjustment, they are highly likely to deploy strategies that will hide the fact that they stammer. However, this does not offer them the scope to demonstrate their qualities in an interview.

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.

The Employers Stammering Network (ESN) was launched in May 2013 as a network of companies and public sector employers who were looking to support their employees who stammer.

The network’s aim is to address the discrimination faced by people who stammer in the workplace, as well as the risk of employers of losing out on talent because their systems and protocols aren’t supportive of people who stammer. Our aim is to ensure that stammering will become irrelevant to career choice, to recruitment, and to career progression and fulfilling your potential once in employment.

We are doing this through network champions, through creating stammering networks within each employer and across the networks, and by offering training workshops, advice and support when it comes to policies and protocols.

The stigma surrounding stammering often makes it difficult for people who stammer to come out of the closet about a disability they have done so much over the years to hide. It makes it difficult for employers and line managers to have an open dialogue about the issues stammering can cause at work and what support would be helpful. ESN is also looking, as co-Chair Iain Wilkie has written, to instigate one million ‘courageous conversations’ about the disability. It is only by being open about stammering that we can address the problem.

To find out more about the ESN, or stammering at work, visit the British Stammering Association website or contact the ESN Network Manager Helen Carpenter at You can also read more about the million courageous conversations campaign on the intandem blog.

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