Many small steps to stammering awareness

Tim Fell | 05.10.2017

Stamwalk reminded me of my own experience with stammering.  You stand at the threshold of life with a stammer and it looks daunting.  You can visualise what the destination looks like, but it seems a long way away, and there are many obstacles in your path.

I remember standing at the famous sign post at John O’Groats.  Decision time.  Do I catch the next train home?  Or go for it?

The first step south was the most important.  I knew the road ahead was going to be hard.  I knew it was going to be painful.  But I also knew that, unless I faced the difficulties, I would never get to where I wanted to go.

I was walking at about 3.5 mph.  It seemed very slow and I didn’t appear to make much progress hour by hour.  But now, when I look back after 56 days I think, wow, that’s an awfully long way.  In fact, it was 1,035 miles and 2,163,629 steps.  And the thing is, every single one of those small steps has played its part in getting me down to Land’s End.

Raising awareness about stammering is a bit like that, too.  It’s never going to be quick.  It’s never going to be easy. But every single conversation we have about stammering raises awareness just that little bit more for the good of ourselves and for the whole stammering community.  It’s only when we face our stammer and talk openly about stammering to our family, friends and colleagues that we’ll be able to look back after a few years and say, “Wow, look how far we’ve come”.

The walk from John O’Groats to Land’s End will go down as one of the most incredible experiences of my life.  It was an enormous privilege to represent people who stammer as I walked down through the country, talking to folks along the way.  It was a unique insight into the fears, hopes and ambitions of many fellow stammerers, and a rare opportunity to take stock of my own voyage on the stormy seas of self-discovery.  It was an honour to meet speech and language therapists, many of whom are responsible for transforming the lives of their clients – what a wonderful profession it is.  And

I got the chance to see some of the most beautiful areas of the country up close and personal.

I wanted to walk the length of the country because I felt we needed to do more to raise awareness about stammering.  One of the best ways to do that is to talk to people.  Face to face.

Raising awareness about stammering, to those who have little understanding of it, is a no-brainer.  But raising awareness is more than talking only to the uninitiated.  It’s also about talking about stammering to people who stammer, because many of us don’t talk about it.  So, Stamwalk was also about raising awareness of the benefits of talking to our family and friends, people who know us best, about our stammer.  If we’re open to them about stammering it’s much easier to be open about it to colleagues and even strangers.  It’s difficult to talk about stammering - I know because it took me many years to do it.  But it’s the best way to face a stammer.

In the 56 days I was on Stamwalk I stayed the night in only six B&Bs.  The other 50 nights I was with members of the BSA, speech therapists, friends, and family.  They all welcomed me into their homes, fed me, ran a hot bath for me, tucked me up in bed, and sent me off with a sandwich and Snickers bar the next morning.  I can’t thank them enough.  Without exception, they were pleased to be involved and wanted to help.  Those who knew nothing about stammering demanded to know all about it and you can be sure that, when they next sit down to dinner with friends, they’ll say, “You know what, I talked to this bloke from the BSA and he said…..”.

That goes for everyone I spoke to during the long days, too.  Although some mentioned the King’s Speech and Ed Sheeran, no one really had any clue what causes stammering, what it feels like to be someone who stammers, or how to relate to us.  But they were curious and wanted to be better informed.  When they next meet someone who stammers they’ll see them as perfectly normal people who happen to speak in a different way.

The point, here, is that films and plays featuring stammering, interviews with celebrities who stammer, and videos about stammering are all helpful.  But the value of us, all of us, talking about stammering to the people we know and meet is incalculable.  It’ll do more good than 1,000s of films, celebrities and videos.

One of the challenges of Stamwalk is to make sure we make the most of the opportunities that arose.  For example, Tony Adams, journalist and broadcaster, asked at the Birmingham event what he could do to help.  Preet Kaur Gill MP said she would ask a Parliamentary Question.  Liam Byrne MP offered his support, as did Steve McCabe MP.  George Freeman MP said that he would hold a reception in the House of Commons to raise awareness about stammering.  The event in Bristol was the first occasion that the regional ESN hub got together, and a new hub was proposed for Birmingham and the West Midlands, and for Newcastle and the North East.  Many other introductions were made with the promise of future collaboration for the good of people who stammer.  Our job now is to facilitate those intentions.

A highlight of Stamwalk for me was the companionship of those who walked with me.  I will never forget the time we spent together, some for a few miles, some for the whole day.  I would like to think we will be friends for many years.  It would be great to meet up again soon, although we all have busy lives to lead.

I have to admit to a major failure.  I set out to enjoy a different pint of ale every day of the walk and to record my tasting notes.  The project was, however, doomed to failure when I discovered that Belhaven and McEwans were the only beers on offer for the first two weeks, with the exception of Sheepshaggers Gold by Cairngorm Brewery.  Readers of my blog will know that I signed up three sheep for membership of the BSA, but that’s as far as I was prepared to go.

I set out on Stamwalk to raise awareness about stammering, to increase membership of the BSA, and to raise money for the work the BSA does for people who stammer.  I’ve never been afraid of ambition.  But what is certain is that raising awareness about stammering is not going to happen overnight.  It’s going to take many small steps to make a difference, and we all have a part to play in getting us to Land’s End.