Walter Scott reports on the inaugural meeting of the ESN, held in Central London in June.
Years ago, whilst on work experience at a Soho publishing house, I was asked to distribute publicity on the street wearing rollerskates, a lightning-flash tattoo and a slightly-too-small gown. An editor had taken a gamble on an unknown children's author - called J.K. Rowling.
I got a similar tingling sense of the birth of something phenomenal at the first Employers Stammering Network meeting, attended by representatives from other members including Citigroup, EY, FirstGroup, HSBC, Prudential and Shell. Harry Potter is long behind me, and I'm now a mere civil servant. My invite came from Jimmy Lang, a sergeant major credited with getting us, the Ministry of Defence, signed up to the ESN. We are setting up a stammering network for the Forces and Ministry of Defence staff, so this was a chance to talk ‘best practice’ with our private sector counterparts. The wine was useful to that end.
It was uplifting to meet fellow people who stammer in an employment-focused forum. In the many organisations - large, small, private, public - with which I have been involved, I have never encountered a single person who stammers – why? Yet here we were, professionals from different businesses and sectors, united by a need for change. In so much of the speech therapy I have undertaken, the workplace has felt a world away. Then again, therapy can do little to change corporate attitudes. So the event felt political.
We heard from two skilled speakers. Jimmy Lang, a robust voice as befits a sergeant major, gave a swashbuckling account of his campaign within the Army chain of command, moving through hierarchy and bureaucracy to get the Defence Medical Services Training Group added to the ESN. Stammering is not recognised in formal Defence personnel policy, and the Armed Forces are exempt from disability legislation. So is it OK to stammer in the military?
BSA CEO Norbert Lieckfeldt then transported us to a macro-level, speaking on Dr. Clare Butler’s paper on ‘aesthetic labour’ and the experiences of people who stammer in the workplace. He painted a bleakly realistic picture of how stammering sits in the corporate mindset, given that omnipresent demand for ‘excellent communication skills’. Much of what Norbert said felt familiar to me. In that narrow window of opportunity – the interview – my career path has been punctuated with many bad, and a few blissful, experiences. I have avoided better-paid client-facing jobs and used ‘entrepreneurial’ tactics, taking less sought-after roles and developing them into more desirable activity. It seems to work; my ego is alive and well and in 12 happy years I’ve made presentations, chaired meetings, engaged ministers and been promoted three times. But my continuing assumption is that stammering is construed by default as uncertainty, unclear thinking and nervousness – and that consequently it is incompatible with senior management.
I left the event with the excitement of unfinished business. The achievements of founder Iain Wilkie, Norbert and Ambassador Leys Geddes in establishing ESN are deeply inspiring. For me there is now a big burning question: is it acceptable to stammer in the 21st century? If we are firmly united as people who stammer, then I believe we can and must start asking that question, loudly, publicly and in some pretty senior places.
From Speaking Out, Summer/Autumn 2014 edition, p4