About the presenter: Andrew Harding is in charge of the British Stammering Association's employment project. Originally from Australia, Andrew organised self-help meetings with the Speak Easy Association in Perth, where he found fluency shaping techniques very helpful when combined with the support of a self-help group. Andrew produced the association's newsletter 'Speaking Free', and has just produced 'One Voice' issue 13 for the International Stuttering Association. He enjoys radio and public speaking work, being an active member of Toastmasters International.

You can post Questions/comments about the following paper to Andrew Harding before October 22, 2001.


Employment and stammering -- the work begins: Providing practical advice for creating a better working environment

by Andrew Harding
from United Kingdom

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.

Publicity

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.

  1. Giving talks. People relate best to people. Employers have often said that meeting and talking with a person with a particular disability was how they understood the issues for the first time. Although written material is useful for reaching a mass audience, employers will get more out of a talk by a person who stammers describing their experiences and giving advice, than they will get from a brochure. With the help of some of our members, we intend to give presentations to companies, businesses or public sector employers about employing people who stammer.
  2. Train the trainer. There is a growing area of disability (or diversity) training. Independent trainers give courses and workshops to help staff from a variety of organisations to recognise and respond appropriately to some of the disabilities they may encounter in their work.
  3. Signposting. To make the best use of our resources, we need to establish secure contacts who can continue to give out our brochures and direct people to us, after the main project has finished. There are four areas in which we will be setting up this signposting function.
    • The Employment Service. This is the government employment agency. Each office has a disability employment advisor, with specialist advisors at each regional office in the UK.
    • Careers advisors. Some have already found our information very useful, and we need to reach as many advisors and students as we can. High schools, colleges and universities all employ advisors, and there is a national network of advice centres. Because of the numbers involved, this has the potential to become a separate project.
    • Trade unions. Most of the major unions have a disability officer who helps members with disabilities to receive fair treatment, and raises awareness of disability issues. Some unions have a special disability forum for this purpose.
    • The Chartered Institute of Personnel Directors (CIPD). This is a major national training and professional organisation for people working in human resources and personnel management. They provide a wide range of information to members and produce books and a high-circulation monthly magazine.
The big picture

  • In a competitive job market, there is an increasing demand for people who look and sound good. By providing examples of people whose jobs require strong interpersonal and communication skills, who happen to stammer, we are trying to prevent people who stammer being stereotyping in the ‘benevolent backroom job' role.
  • Our message is that people do not need to look or sound perfect to have strong communication skills. In fact, overcoming the limitations of stammering is a good way of developing excellent communication skills that can be the envy of colleagues – a fact mentioned by a personnel manager in our employers brochure. Equal opportunities and disability awareness must not get lost. Some employers are already well informed about stammering. Our campaign aims to turn the few into the many.

    References

  • Ayre, A. Wright, L. and Grogan, S. (1998) Therapy's Long-Term Impact on Attitudes to Stuttering at Work, Proceedings of the 2nd World Congress on Fluency Disorders, pp 403-6 Hurst, M.I. and Cooper, E.B. (1983) Employer Attitudes towards Stuttering. Journal of Fluency disorders, Vol. 8 pp1-12
  • Stottervereniging Demosthenes (Netherlands Stuttering Association) 2000, Survey of attitudes to stammering among employers. The Stuttering Information Centre of Denmark conducted a survey a few years ago which showed some people who stammer experienced discrimination when they applied for a job. The Centre is currently conducting a survey among public institutions about the policies of employing people who stammer.
  • The BSA information for employers and employees is on the BSA website. www.stammering.org/employment.html
  • A detailed website on stammering and employment issues in the UK context is at: www.atyrer.demon.co.uk
  • The Disability Rights Commission website is at: www.drc.org.uk
  • The Employers Forum website is at: www.employers-forum.co.uk


    You can post Questions/comments about the above paper to Andrew Harding before October 22, 2001.


    September 6, 2001