Soon after I started work on the British Stammering Association's (BSA) employment project, I realised there was little point in a campaign to try to raise employers' awareness of stammering. Numerous studies had returned findings that showed most employers were aware of the problems and the limitations it could cause. What made the difference was the willingness of some employers to focus on a person's skills and abilities rather than the stammering.
To make the campaign worthwhile, we are providing employers with practical advice on recruiting and developing people who stammer. In this paper I will describe the strategy and plans of the BSA project. The employers campaign is the first part of the employment project, and the production of a detailed brochure of employment advice for people who stammer is the second. It is essential that the project include both employers and people who stammer because both have responsibilities and rights when seeking a better working environment.
What we are saying to employers
The message that good communication involves a lot more than fluency is one of the most important parts of the campaign to improve employer attitudes and practices. There is little point in giving information about stammering without practical advice backed by business incentives to use it. There are three aspects of our campaign here.
The first is the underlying need to encourage more employers to develop a greater knowledge and sensitivity to the needs and difficulties faced by people with disabilities. We particularly want to show them how to be more responsive and willing to engage with people who stammer. And how? By telling employers to focus on what the person is saying about their skills and knowledge, and not making assumptions of their ability based on their speech. This sounds very obvious, but is not so easy to do, even when you work for the BSA. Some time ago I was talking on the phone with a woman whose speech sound a bit slurred and dull. During the conversation she explained that she had a facial disformity, and I realised how easily I had begun to form a misleading impression of her as a dull person. How much more awareness is needed by people who know little about stammering and other speech disorders?
Second, the practical basis. In the employers brochure, we are giving practical examples of how to respond when a person is stammering, and how to establish good lines of communication with them. As well as the basic advice of showing respect by listening to and engaging with what the person is saying, we advise employers to be as open as possible in discussing with the person their skills, needs and ambitions. How this is done, and to what extent will depend on how comfortable people are with stammering, and the culture within an organisation. While we recognise that some people who stammer are reluctant to discuss their stammering at work, it is important that employers are given clear guidelines to use in the way they see best. This may be to have an open door policy for the employee to raise any issues as needed, or it could involve a more direct discussion and appraisal with the employee. The most important thing is that our examples of successful people who stammer provide employers with good reasons to see past a person's stammer, and the tools to become more confident in handling potentially uncomfortable or unfamiliar situations.
Third, the legal basis. Under UK law it is unlawful (without adequate justification from the employer) to refuse employment to a suitably experienced and qualified person on the grounds of their disability. This protection for people with disabilities is provided by the Disability Discrimination Act (1995). Under the Act, employers are obliged to make "reasonable adjustments" to any recruitment and employment practices that would disadvantage the disabled person. Reasonable adjustments involve changes that are not too costly or inconvenient to for the employer to make. Examples of reasonable adjustments for people who stammer would include: allowing a few more minutes at an interview if this was requested prior to the interview; changing a spoken test or assessment to a written assessment if verbal communication skills are not being assessed; providing adequate time and support for the person to prepare for presentations; exempting the person from non-essential presentations without penalty; negotiating the use of the telephone if it is a particular difficulty and not essential to the job; chairing meetings so that the person who stammers can contribute without too much interruption; and providing time off the person to attend speech therapy courses.
What we are saying to people who stammer
There are overwhelming torrents of evidence that stammering causes a lot of anxiety for people who stammer at job interviews and at work. Being open about stammering, especially at work, is quite unrealistic for some people, and irrelevant for others who find other people's intolerance to be the main problem. So why are we suggesting ways for people to be more open and upfront about it in the most difficult of situations? It is because many people have found that telling interviewers, managers or colleagues they stammer is the best way to reduce anxiety in the long term. We are giving practical suggestions on how to prepare for interviews and how to talk about stammering, so that the main issue of preparing to convey knowledge and skills is not lost amid a person's anxiety. However, we do advise caution here. People who are not ready to be open about their stammering do not need to feel they have failed, and do not need to think that they have to get to terms with their stammering on their own. Support is essential, and the BSA is a gateway to support of various kinds.
The background for our work in the UK
No campaign ever happens in a vacuum. Ours has been stimulated by what people who stammer have told us (in a recent survey on the effects of stammering on employment and education), the growing culture of disability awareness in the UK, and the introduction in 1995 of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). A significant part of the Act is focused on employment rights for people with disabilities. The government has established a body, the Disability Rights Commission (DRC), to promote awareness of the Act among employers, provide practical guidelines on how to meet its requirements, and an advice and conciliation service to resolve employment disputes relating to disability. Does the fact that the Chair of the DRC, Bert Massie, is a guest speaker at the project launch on October 22 mean we are saying that stammering is clearly a disability? No it doesn't. What we are saying is that stammering is an impediment that can sometimes be a disability, and that employers need to engage with the abilities of people who stammer, irrespective of the specific issue of disability.
A case in point is that of a former employee of Walkers Crisps, Kevin Alderson. Mr Alderson has taken Walkers to an employment tribunal (a special employment court) because he claims that his manager treated him so badly because of his stammering that he had to resign. The manager allegedly made him do a course at work that was not directly related to his job, where he had to speak in front of a group, an experience he found embarrassing and humiliating. The case is based partly on the DDA and if successful, will be the first in the UK to establish that stammering is a disability as defined by the Act. Whether or not the case succeeds, the lesson for other managers and employers is clear. The best way to prevent problems occurring is to talk openly with the person about things they are confident, and not so confident of doing.
Disability awareness among large UK employers is being raised by the Employers Forum on Disability - an organisation made up of 400 UK companies and public sector employer. Members receive advice, information and support on a wide range of disability issues. There are also many national organisations who help people with disabilities to get training and work placements. Such work raises the profile and needs of people with disabilities among employers.
This begins with the launch of the employment project in central London on October 22, which of course is ISAD – a useful tag for publicity. As a relatively small organisation developing its expertise and reach in a new area, we are working with large employer and disability organisations to offer them specialist resources and to increase our effectiveness. I cannot overemphasise the importance of this kind of collaboration, for it enables us to reach many more people than we would be able to do on our own. With BSA assistance the Employers Forum are producing a briefing paper on stammering to be made available to their 400 members and all who attend their training sessions and events.
There are two types of media outlets to contact for this project; the general media, including the employment sections of newspapers, and the trade magazines. Here in the UK, all the unions produce magazines, as do the major organisations for employers, personnel directors, company directors and managers. We will be targeting the personnel, recruitment and interviewing magazines because many people who stammer find this stage the most difficult, and it is a logical place to begin a campaign.
The initial publicity is just that. Initial. After the wave of publicity and interest generated by the launch has abated, there are three areas on which we want to focus.