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Facing the authorities!

Stuart Ford, Ron Kennedy, Carl Robinson | 01.02.1999

By Stuart Ford, Ron Kennedy and Carl Robinson

Parrots - The Willy Russell Centre, LiverpoolAn exciting and unique event was recently organised for the clients of the Willy Russell Centre for Children and Adults who Stammer. For most of us this was our first experience of an 'Authority Figures evening'. The aim was for us to use our newly acquired communication skills by 'acting out' stressful situations with the authority figures who were not actors but volunteers from real life. They included a magistrate, a solicitor, police officers, traffic wardens, a head teacher and even a bus driver (and his bus!).

At first we did not know quite what to expect: we were all nervous and some people had been worrying for days! We gave our names to the receptionist (this in itself was stressful) and were given written scenarios to act out. These ranged from simply asking for bus tickets to being questioned by the police about alleged drink driving offences and then appearing before a very severe magistrate.

Because the situations were structured, we were able to practise our communication skills in a controlled way, but as the situations felt so 'real' we were also able to experience the emotional upset and agitation which can sometimes lead to stammering.

Each scenario was role-played for about five minutes. As one of the authority figures later pointed out, this is not as easy as it sounds. Situated in the police room, one of us had the privilege of videoing the client's reactions whilst they were interviewed (and sometimes interrogated!) by the police. It was like watching 'The Bill' - only more frightening!

Some clients were subjected to intense questioning and made the target of criminal accusations. Despite this considerable pressure it was very pleasing to see all clients maintain their composure and, in some cases, get the better of the officers.

The ultimate aims of becoming desensitised and more able to cope were eventually achieved. We all worked hard, thoroughly enjoyed the evening and felt ready to take on even the most terrifying real-life situations.

But what of the authority figures themselves? They gave their own time to help us understand that people in authority are only human. Whereas we may hide behind our stammer, maybe they hide behind their uniforms or their professional status. Our pre-conceived ideas of 'them' were shown to have no basis in reality.

Enacting a scene with Merseyside PoliceAfter the role-plays were complete, we sat down together for a much needed cup of tea. We discussed how successful the evening had been. All of the authority figures told how much they, too, had enjoyed the night and unhesitatingly offered their services for the next time. As a result of the evening, their understanding of stammering had increased. They particularly understood the importance of giving a stammerer time to finish what s/he has to say.

Our head teacher for the evening commented that our role play had been of a very high standard - better than that of many drama students. He said that our eye contact had been excellent and that we had used effective communication. We were thrilled - we must be doing something right!

Our receptionist for the evening admitted that despite some experience of dealing with people and communication difficulties she felt 'uncomfortable' when the stammerer seemed 'uneasy' about the dysfluency. This highlights the need for us to desensitise ourselves to our stammers. If we are at ease, so is the listener.

The authority figures were able to 'see beyond the speaking problem' and understood that what we have to say can be as interesting (or as boring!) as the next person. If these authority figures have passed on what they have learned, the benefits will be even greater.

Heartfelt thanks to the volunteers who gave of their own time and went out of their way to be as realistic as possible; the courageous clients who put themselves on the line and coped better than they ever thought they could; and the dedicated and long-suffering staff who did a tremendous amount of work organising the event.

If Hollywood has not beckoned, we all look forward to a repeat performance next year.

Speaking Out Winter 1998/99. The workshop at the Willy Russell Centre, Liverpool was developed by SLTs Mary Collings and Hilary Liddle.