The campaigning work of a UK disabled people’s organisation (DPO) will receive international recognition next week when it hosts a global conference that is set to attract people who stammer from all over the world.
STAMMA will host the five-day STAMMAFest Global at the University of Liverpool and hopes it will build confidence within the community of people who stammer and allow their “beautiful disfluent voices” to be heard.
The disabled-led UK charity was asked to host the International Stuttering Association’s 14th World Congress after the success of its campaigns Find the Right Words and No Diversity Without Disfluency, both of which have been copied by organisations around the world.
Find the Right Words was launched in October 2020 and aimed to start a conversation around the negative language used when talking about stammering, and to “help those who don’t stammer to understand that this is just how some people talk”.
Last October’s No Diversity Without Disfluency called on broadcast media to include people who stammer.
All but one of STAMMA’s trustees stammer, and Kirsten Howells, the charity’s support services manager, said it was “vital” the conference was being run by an organisation led by disabled people.
She said: “This is our conference, where we decide what’s on the agenda, and where we reflect the diversity of opinion, experience and perspective within our community, too.
“We’re not all the same.”
She said the request for STAMMA to host the global conference was “a recognition of the strides we’ve taken as an organisation to build a community as well as addressing public attitudes to stammering”.
Paul Roberts, a volunteer member of the organising committee, said the conference would show people who stammer that they “can organise and pull off a fantastic event for ourselves, without fluent intervention, without someone speaking for us”.
STAMMAFest Global, being held from 24 to 28 August, will incorporate STAMMA’s own biennial conference and will be the first time the charity has been able to hold that event since 2018, after the Covid pandemic caused its cancellation in 2020.
Howells said the pace of change in attitudes to people who stammer was “glacial”.
She said: “People who stammer continue to face considerable discrimination in employment and educational settings, in the way customer services are provided, and in access to health care, as well as social interactions.”
STAMMA’s helpline has received calls from sixth-form students who are denied access to modern languages A-levels because their schools are concerned about the impact of stammering on their exam results, and therefore the schools’ positions in league tables.
University students who stammer have been denied extra time in oral examinations, and STAMMA’s employment support service has heard from people worried that telling a potential employer they stammer will mean they will be refused a job interview.
Only two years ago, a YouGov poll found 21 per cent of respondents said they felt fairly or very comfortable with jokes about stammering.
But Howells said invisible discrimination was also a key issue, with the proportion of stammered voices heard in the media at “miniscule” levels, even though eight per cent of children stammer for at least a short period of time, while a YouGov poll in 2021 found two per cent of adult respondents reported a stammer.
People who stammer also find barriers to accessing services, such as GP appointments or banking systems that rely on telephone use, including voice-activation.
Howells said: “We receive frequent reports from people who have such difficulty getting GP appointments, who are cut off by voice-activated banking systems that don’t understand their speech due to stammering (but where alternative methods of contact are not offered or only involve social media options which not everyone has or wants access to), or are hung up on by customer service representatives who assume it’s a prank call when, really, the caller is just stammering.”
Roberts said he once worked for a company with remote door security, which meant staff had to identify themselves via a microphone to gain access.
He said: “You can imagine the scene by the door when I needed to get in, but maybe you don’t think of the anxiety during my journey to work and walking up to the door, not knowing whether I would be able to say my name and gain quick access.
“The employer had not installed this system to make life hard for me, it had just not considered the impact.”
Next week’s conference will have four themes: change and empowerment; community; culture; and work and education.
The opening plenary session, on Thursday (25 August), will discuss the global community of people who stammer, and how they can find a sense of belonging, empowerment and support, and push back against stigma.
Friday’s plenary session will see a discussion about stammering by a panel of artists, writers and musicians.
They will include actor, writer, rapper and podcaster Scroobius Pip; novelist Hannah Tovey; novelist, poet and playwright Professor Owen Sheers; and – appearing via videolink from the US – musician and poet JJJJJerome.
Saturday’s plenary session will examine stammering in the workplace; and Sunday’s session will hear from speakers who are challenging discrimination, lobbying those in power, and helping the public understand “that stammering is simply the way some of us talk”.
There will be more than 40 workshops during the conference, including one that discusses the concepts of stammering pride and prejudice; and another examining how virtual reality is being used by people who stammer as a safe space to speak.
Other workshops will examine research that has looked at how stammering is presented in 200 films; and hear from creators of stammering podcasts and how they use those podcasts for advocacy, community-building, and empowerment.
Those attending the conference are due to come from across the world, including Cameroon, Japan, the USA, Rwanda, Germany, Italy, South Africa, Denmark and Sweden.
During the conference, STAMMA – formerly known as the British Stammering Association –will also host a family day, which will allow children who stammer to meet and build confidence, and enable their parents to make connections.
The family day will take place on Saturday 27 August, and will include activity and information sessions, with the opportunity also to visit the main conference.
Howells said she hoped STAMMAFest would be “a spur to a next phase of continued confidence-building within our community”, lay some groundwork for increased collaboration between stammering organisations around the world, and allow many “first-timers” to find out for the first time that “they are not alone”.
Roberts said: “We should not underestimate the value of feeling part of something; included instead of excluded; the same, instead of different.
“Those people who stammer will find that they are not the only person at the bar who stammers, and they will know that whoever you speak to ‘gets it’, understands how we feel, being able to relax and speak exactly how we want to, instead of with societal-imposed fluency.”
He added: “We can empower people to understand our beautiful disfluent voices are OK to be heard and do not have to be modified unless we choose to.”
Picture: (From left) JJJJJerome, Scroobius Pip and Hannah Tovey. Picture of JJJJJerome by Bailey Carr
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