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Did you cheer wildly when Bertie swore like a sailor by singing?  Who would believe that stammering would be a key theme in a block buster movie?  Yet The King’s Speech, which received both critical and box office acclaim, raised our awareness of what it’s like for the person with the stammer as well as family and friends.

This past week, I received an inquiry on behalf of an employee who was well qualified for a posting, was interviewed but wasn’t offered the role.  Given his demonstrated record of high performance on the job, he suspects it was due to his stammer.  As he drafted a strategy for next time he wanted to know if he should:

  • Say and do nothing to point out his stammer?
  • Say something up front about the stammer and say that it has never affected his performance?
  • Say something up front and even hand over a letter from a past boss stating that it has never affected his performance?

Before I offered any advice, I needed to update the little I knew about stammering.

What?  Stammering is speaking with involuntary breaks and pauses, or with spasmodic repetitions of syllables or sounds.  Stuttering is speaking in such a way that the rhythm is interrupted by repetitions, blocks or spasms or prolongations of sounds or syllables sometimes accompanied by contortions of the face and body.  They’re similar terms so don’t be afraid to ask the individual which he prefers.  Whichever word is used, it’s important to keep in mind that it does not reflect a person’s intelligence or personality! 

Who?  Aesop (the Greek storyteller), Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean), Carly Simon (You’re So Vain), George Washington (American president) and, of course, Bertie (UK’s King George VI) are just a few famous people who have achieved success in spite of their stammering;  many “regular” folks have as well.  It’s interesting that long-term stammering is four times more common among boys than girls…and that each one of us has the capacity to stammer if pushed far enough!

Why?  There may be several factors at play:  heredity, developmental, neurogenic and psychological.  Stress and embarrassment may make stammering worse but they’re not generally seen as underlying long-term factors.

When?  Often stress and fatigue as well as situations in which people become self-conscious about speaking (e.g. public speaking, teaching, job interviews) make it hard for people to talk fluidly.

How?  Many people who stammer find that their challenge eases up if they can relax, are sure of their topic and are ready to deliver it.  Surely the ”90% prep, 10% delivery” maxim can help all of us!

Ontario Human Rights Commission champions “accommodation with dignity” and supports it as a part of the broader principle that our society should be structured and designed for inclusiveness.  Section 10 (1) of the Code recognizes “any speech impediment” (like stammering).

So how can we as employers and colleagues help?  I found it interesting that some people with a stammer are able to sing or talk with their pets without faltering.  It may be that a pet’s unconditional acceptance underlies this.  The person with the stammer knows what he wants to say;  it just takes him a little longer to share his thoughts.  Each of can:

  • Become more aware and educated.  We can take our lead from the person who stammers 
  • Talk normally.  We don’t need to raise our voice, slow down our speech, use unusual eye contact or be unnaturally nice.  If we relax so will our colleague
  • Listen actively and attentively.  We can focus on the content not the delivery and ensure that our body language reflects our listening interest. 
  • Be patient.  We shouldn’t rush the person, try to finish sentences or fill in words, interrupt or suggest that he slow down
  • Speak up if we don’t understand what was said.  Our own shyness won’t improve communication
  • Be encouraging and supportive.  We can be there for our colleague with a stammer when he’s speaking in public

In the specific case of job interviews:

  • The onus is on the employee to disclose his “disability” and suggest the accommodation most appropriate for him in that situation
  • The employer’s responsibilty is to provide the requested accommodation unless it puts the organization under undue financial pressure (this is rarely the case even for very small owner-operated businesses)

The process might go something like this:

  • When HR schedules candidates for interviews, it should be asking each person:  What accommodation do you need or want during the interview process?
  • If HR doesn’t ask, I’d suggest that the employee says:  I want to point out that I have a stammer.  It’s normally well under control day to day.  Sometimes, under stress, like during an interview, it’s helpful if people can give me a little extra time to gather my thoughts and let me talk at my own pace.  Often people aren’t sure how to talk with a person with a stammer and want to help by finishing my sentences or filling in words.  It’s actually more helpful if they can ride out the silences until I find my comfort zone
  • Before the first interview, the employee may want to mention this again with the Selection Committee
  • During the second interview, when references are typically presented, the employee could mention that his boss would be glad to talk about how his stammer has not affected his on-the-job performance.  He might go on to say:  If fact, customers have requested me specifically for my technical and problem solving expertise

So…the employee who raised this question can reasonably request accommodation for his stammer and, in the process, help each one of us face our own “disabilities” whether visible or not.

This question got me thinking about my own long-standing disability”:  numeric illiteracy.  Thankfully Excel and partnering with someone who is a numbers whiz provide me with timely accommodation;  I actually spent a good deal of my corporate career in financial services!

Common sense, dignity and inclusion are what each one of needs to position us for success in the workplace.  A person with a stammer is no different.