Self-stigma: be energised by prejudice and express righteous anger

Patrick Campbell | 10.07.2015

Lionel Logue: “Why should I waste my time listening to you?”

King George VI: “Because I have a right to be heard! I have a voice!”

Colin Firth exorcises the words across the halls of Westminster Abbey. It is my favourite moment of The King’s Speech. It is such an empowering stammering epiphany

King George, to me, is not speaking to Lionel; he is speaking to himself. He is re-claiming his right to speak. A right that he had lost among all of the negative thoughts and feelings he had around his own speech.

“Because the nation believes that when I speak, I speak for them. But I can't speak”, the King laments early in the film.

All this week StutterTalk have been at the International Fluency Association’s 2015 World Congress producing numerous podcasts with experts on stammering research. The episode I found most interesting was with Dr Michael Boyle on self-stigma in stammering. Stigma it seems can come in two flavours. Public stigma is the most recognisable form. The stigma enacted by society on those who stammer: laughing at an individual who stammers, turning them down for a job because of their speech.

Self-stigma is a more subtle form. Self-stigma is the internalisation of the negative opinions of society. It is those moments of holding back on saying or doing something because of a fear about the reaction of others to stammering.

Self-stigma is thought about in three stages of de-valuing ourselves: awareness, agreement and application of stereotypes. The individual first becomes aware of a stereotype about their stigmatised conditions from society (King George realised that those around him believed stammering showed weakness). They then come to agree with that stereotype themselves over time (King George believes his stammering is a sign of his personal weakness) and finally, and tragically, they come to apply it to themselves (King George believes himself unable to be king because he is weak).

To me, this self-stigma is an understandable response to a society designed for fluency, which wrongly and incorrectly discriminates against our natural way of speaking by a thousand cuts: from strange looks, through automated telephone systems up to the “you can’t even remember your own name”. It is no surprise an individual who stammers can come to view their own speech as inherently wrong and that that subsequently negatively affects the course of their lives. And research shows us that this does happen.

In a galling study into employment aspirations of people who stammer in the UK, nearly three-quarters of participants reported that their speech dysfluency meant certain roles were ‘definitely out of bounds, like a policeman, soldier etc’.  One participant explained ‘I had to think about what I could do, not what I wanted to do, 'want' really didn’t come into it'.
This is the tragic end-point of discriminative views of general society on stammering. The person comes to hold themselves back. 

However, research into self-stigma has highlighted a surprising finding: some people “are energized by prejudice and express righteous anger”. Some people with disabilities come to rage against the negative stereotypes that proliferate in society rather than accepting them. They gain in self-esteem rather than lose it. They believe themselves capable with a disability and place blame for any lack of ability with a discriminating society rather than anything inherently wrong with themselves.

King George in that great scene kicked out his old negative self-stigma of his own speech and replaced it with an anger demanding a right to speak.

Perhaps before we begin to change society’s negative opinions of stammering, we too must fight to change how we ourselves think of stammering. Then we can begin to demand our right to be heard.