About the presenter: Grant Meredith is a lecturer in multimedia and games design at the University of Ballarat, Ballarat, Victoria, Australia. He has achieved bachelor degrees in both Computing and IT and is currenlty working through PhD research looking at the experiences of stuttering students within the Australian higher education system. Grant achieved the honour of being his university's lecturer of the year for 2008 and loves the challenge of lecturing despite being a person who stutters.

You can post Questions/comments about the following paper to the author before October 22, 2009.


Stuttering: Falling through a hole in the academic web?

by Grant Meredith
from Australia

At the beginning of my PhD studies looking into the university experiences of stuttering students an interesting question found its way into my head.

"Could a prospective university student who stutters and possibly requires assistance from university-based disability services to accommodate their stutter in class and assessment situations make an informed choice about the level of support available based solely upon a university's web-based disability services information?" The focus of my study up to that point had been proposing to only look at the experiences of stuttering students who had engaged in an Australian university degree at some point within the last 10 years, and their engagements or lack of with disability services. But I soon realised that to understand the wider story I also needed to find out what pre-information a potential student could find on the Internet about how an Australian-based university could support them into and through academia.

In order to help answer this question a web-based study of 39 of Australian universities was conducted in late 2008. The aim of the study was to look at each university's dedicated internal disability services site and to sample some of the content which was contained there while looking through the eyes of a prospective student who stutters. This was quite an easy mindset for me to adopt, as I do indeed stutter quite well myself, and I have and continue to engage within the realm Higher Education. I endeavoured to see if I could gain an understanding of whether any particular Australian university could support my stutter throughout my potential academic life and, whether I could make some form of an informed decision to enroll based on this information. In an overall sense, could any form of an informed decision be made about attending this university not based on its course information, but based only on its disability based web presence using a simple method of content analysis? University based disability services units in Australia help to support the learning environment of disabled students. Whether or not you consider stuttering as a disability is irrelevant because it does at least legislatively fall under the annex of being a disability in Australia and is not the focal point of this discussion at hand. I am at the moment in my research exploring the notion of disability and identification towards disability services, but that is for a future discussion. It was decided to survey web based information over paper-based on campus information because the Internet has a perceived omniscient and constant presence which is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. Such an informational avenue could be very appealing to a stuttering person who could be anxious about initiating normal face to face communications.

This study did not look beyond the internal university website or its associated links to find information. I left my IT heavy past behind me and assumed the role of a "web browser" who, as defined by Dacor (2009), is a user type who usually browses the contents of a site using only the obvious links available, as opposed to a "web searcher" who is more inclined to use onsite search facilities (Dacor, 2009). The "web browser" definition is closer to how the average web user would behave. The findings from this study were surprising and certainly have implications for a potential student who stutters but also for those who have other speech related disabilities and not forgetting all disabled students as a whole. I have decided to talk only about a small handful of the more stuttering related findings throughout this paper.

One point of this investigation was to gauge whether or not each site contained the details of directly contactable disability liaison officers (DLO). A healthy sign was that each site offered a range of alternative methods to contact DLOs, ranging from email, postal and telephone. These alternative methods could cater well for a stuttering student who may not wish to use a telephone for initial contact or indeed for any contact at all. Stutterers in general have a great fear of phone-based communication (Jamesa, Brumfitt, & Cudd, 1999), or may find the telephone based communications to be more problematic that face-to-face communication (Petrunik, 1982), and may have increased disfluency levels under such a circumstance (Breathnach, 2000). A point of great interest was that not all universities gave the name of a particular disability liaison officer. Only just over half of universities provided a directly named contact point. For some stutterers, not knowing who to directly talk to or communicate with over such a touchy topic of disability may cause them more anxiety to perhaps an already anxiety filled life. Perhaps a cause of this may be that university budgets may be a little stretched in these current hard economic times to pay someone to constantly update their websites? Perhaps having a named contact point is not seen as a great advantage to clients? Or perhaps simply disability liaison officers may be too busy to take calls personally and rely on administration staff to help facilitate initial contact?

A major step in this investigation was to establish whether or not a university website offered public access to any form of official guides aimed at providing staff with guidance concerning the teaching and assessment of disabled students and, more specifically, stuttering or speech impaired students. Nearly half of the universities studied provided access to disability related teaching information to the general public though not all of these sites allowed the general public to access this information. This is not a great number of universities offering guides. These guides, in general, covered popularly known and current topical disabilities such as hearing impairment, sight impairment, mobility impairment, mental health conditions and even heart conditions. Surprisingly, more than one guide had sections relating to Asperger's Syndrome. This is surprising because it is only speculated that around 4 adults in 1000 (Attwood, 2007) are believed to have this condition and that is low in comparison to the generally accepted figure of 1 in 100 (Andrews & Harris, 1964; Ginsberg, 2000) who stutter. It is interesting to note though that Asperger's Syndrome of late has been getting a lot of public and media attention.

Only around 10% of the sites surveyed advertised any form of teaching and assessment guide with sections specifically focused on speech impaired students including stuttering. On an interesting note the information that was presented was very general in content, short in nature and it felt that it was not as well thought out or given as much text space compared that of the other categories of disability. Some of the strategies also seemed to mimic what I would class as general teaching strategies, and I should know because I lecture. For example one strategy to help teach a stuttering university student was to "maintain eye contact". Now as a teacher myself I see this strategy as a general one to be used for teaching all students regardless of stuttering. It is also general manners. Another simple strategy was to "let the student finish their sentences. Do not speak for them." Again I would class this as a general strategy when communicating to all students. Could it simply be that the same general strategies of teaching and communicating also suit the stuttering student? But I raise the question. Has anyone in disability services ever asked what stuttering students think they need to succeed at university? Do the strategies have to get any more complicated and thought out? As my PhD study ticks along time I hope that some answers emerge.

When some strategies did exist some they were entered into the popular search engine called "Google" and they were found present or worded in the exact same form elsewhere at stuttering support sites, and overseas schools and universities. Perhaps this is a sign that not much effort or thought has been put towards this student type and that someone had copied generic guidelines from an external source? Are Australian universities simply blindly following what they have found externally to address stuttering students? Perhaps this also is a sign that more education is needed for disability services regarding stuttering and its effects on the individual? At times speech impairment did seem to be mentioned simply in the context of other disabilities, more notably connected to hearing impaired. It strangely seems to be assumed that stuttering is related to having other disabilities or it maybe a bi-product of a different disability or injury. For one university stuttering was mentioned only in the context of brain injuries. I am not sure if that mould fits most of us out their in real life! Again I would push for further education about stuttering and this issue.

During this paper I have only discussed only two major areas of exploration in this study. But these two points alone point to the fact that disability service officers in Australian universities need more education about what stuttering is and how to address it in situations of class, assessment and task based engagement. A dilemma comes instantly into my mind though. If stutterers themselves are not presenting themselves to disability services for assistance and in turn not helping to raise awareness, understanding and to formulate strategies for assistance then disability service officers, universities and governmental policy/decision makers as a whole are none the wiser about their plight. I propose that stutterers ourselves, regardless of whether or not you think you are disabled or not, must be more proactive in matters of education and awareness. We must use our individual and consolidated voices to instigate local and global change for all areas of society regarding stuttering.

References

Andrews, G., & Harris, M. (1964). The Syndrome of Stuttering: Clinics in Developmental Medicine (Vol. 17). London: Heinemann.

Attwood, T. (2007). Is There a Difference Between Asperger's Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism? [Electronic Version]. Retrieved 9th March, 2009, from http://www.tonyattwood.com.au/articles/pdfs/attwood1.pdf

Breathnach, C. S. (2000). Scanning the Stammering Brain. Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, 12(3), 173-186.

Dacor, A. (2009). Two Types of Web Users. Retrieved 25th August, 2008, from http://www.great-web-design-tips.com/web-site-design/150.html

Ginsberg, A. P. (2000). Shame, Self-Consciousness, and Locus of Control in People Who Stutter. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 161(4), 389-399.

James, S. E., Brumfitt, S. M., & Cudd, P. A. (1999). Communicating by telephone: Views of a group of people with stuttering impairment. Journal of Fluency Disorders, 24(4), 299-317.

Petrunik, M. ( 1982). Telephone Troubles: Interactional Breakdown and its Management by Stutterers and Their Listeners. Journal of Symbolic Interaction, 5(Fall), 299310.


You can post Questions/comments about the above paper to the author before October 22, 2009.


SUBMITTED: August 29, 2009
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