About the presenter: Robert Van Keilegom is 56 years old. He lives in Belgium where he is a successful businessmen and entrepreneur.
About the presenter: Anthony Stewart is an NHS public health specialist in Birmingham UK and visiting professor in epidemiology at Staffordshire University. His specialist subjects are epidemiology, statistical analysis, evidence-based medicine and health technology assessment. Active in research, he is currently leading a large osteoporosis study, and working on other projects. Married with a young family, his hobbies involve a little piano playing, listening to jazz and enjoying good company.

You can post Questions/comments about the following paper to the authors before October 22, 2006.

Success! In Spite Of (or maybe because of?) Stuttering - Personal Stories

Robert Van Keilegom (Belgium) and Tony Stewart (England)

The personal accounts below are not in any way meant to condone teasing or career-limiting advice, but rather to demonstrate how these two individuals were able to find successful careers and wonderful lives in spite of stuttering and in spite of experiencing discouragement. (JAK)

Robert's Story: Frustration Gave Me Strength to Prove Myself

As far as I can remember, for the whole of my childhood, I have been stuttering, possibly since the age of 3. According to my mother my stuttering was a consequence of great fear, which expressed itself through the many nightmares I had when I was a small child.

Before I started school I had a lot of friends. We played and had fun. But my primary school years were rather sad. I was plagued by teasing at school. Neither the teachers nor the higher authority of the school supported me. Those schooldays were very frustrating and emotionally a very heavy burden. Due to these unbearable tortures at school, I decided to quit school at the age of 14. School left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Although I was a good student, I simply could not tolerate it that people were laughing at me all the time.

However, in my opinion, this frustration gave me the strength to prove myself to my relatives and friends. I would show them that I was a capable person!

I developed myself through self study and vigilance and started to gain confidence as I went along my own way. I made new friends, who accepted me for what I was. During the weekends my parents allowed me to go out and my friends and I went out motorcrossing in the claypits. We sometimes cycled with more than 10 friends to neighboring dances and pubs. I met some girls and at the age of 17 got to know the woman I married at the age of 21. We raised a family of two daughters who are now also married and who have given us 5 adorable grandchildren.

Let me go back in time, to the point where school left me with an image of me standing at the edge of society. I felt worthless. Slowly I gained confidence through self development. At the age of 18 I asked my parents to give me a loan of 500.000 Bef (equal now to about 12.500 Euro) and I set up my own business.

The amount of money did not scare me a lot, I had the drive to show everyone what my capabilities were. I felt smart, I could reason enough so I could be an entrepreneur. So I started up my own small scale business in the region in technical material. I went out to visit customers, made my purchases and took a great deal of time for market research.

In a short time, I traveled to neighboring countries to check out the products sold there and I got a good picture of the potential market, learning the needs of the customers.

After a lot of math, I calculated that it would be possible to produce these products myself. I started my first successful production unit and we needed to add more units soon after.

In the meanwhile my children and sons in law are also busy in the company. Due to all the efforts, our company has grown to become marketleader in Belgium and on the European front we are also becoming an important player. Currently we have production units in Italy, India and China. The Main office is in Belgium where everything is coordinated. After 35 years of being a businessmen and entrepreneur I can look back at my professional and personal life and I find success.

As you can read, a person who stutters can also have a beautiful and rich life.

Not everyone may feel this way, but I personally feel now that all the teasing and the bad luck during my youth, made me stronger.

Tony's Story: Her Narrow-Mindedness Became My Inspiration

At 45 years old, I have stammered for as long as I can remember. Iím left handed too, which means that in the 1600s I would certainly have been burned at the stake for my apparent "sorcery".(1) Fortunately, we live in more enlightened times now ń or do we?

In 1993, I had the privilege of writing in the journal "Speaking Out" about my experiences of stammering in the workplace.(2) Up to that time, I had blatantly been denied promotion in the service industry because of my stammer, then demoted when it re-appeared after being in remission for a while. I was not imagining any conspiracy theories; my employers told me quite clearly that stammering and a management position could not mix. This well known international organisation (still in business today) felt that my stammer would present a poor image of the company to its customers. So aged 29, I was removed from my junior executive position and given a job as an installation technician. My salary was halved, and future prospects looked distinctly bleak. Stammering at job interviews made it difficult for me to find alternative work, so I stayed on until my local office was closed down, resulting in redundancy. But things began to improve, and in my 1993 article, I wrote about a new opportunity that I had been offered within the NHS. Unbelievably, I was successful at interview, despite stammering so severely that I was practically incomprehensible.

Career-wise, a completely fresh start was required. I had been given a good job in the NHS, helping GPs and other health care professionals to evaluate the quality of their work. Having left school half-way through A levels, I had no real qualifications, which unfortunately limited any future prospects. My line manager, however, suggested that I might like to undertake a certificate in health services management, and provided some funding as well as protected time to study. My job gradually became more interesting, and I was eventually made a manager. In a management reshuffle (for which the NHS is still famous), my job was transferred over to the public health department. Unexpectedly, it turned out that completion of the management certificate made me eligible to read part-time for a Master of Public Health degree (MPH), and I was again encouraged and helped to enrol. This introduced me to the world of medical research and epidemiology, which I found utterly fascinating. Upon graduating with my MPH, the university offered me a job as a researcher carrying out systematic reviews of evidence for new medical technologies. This work gave me some enormously valuable practical skills in epidemiology.

I subsequently applied for a position at a different university, involving the development and management of a new MPH course, and to my amazement was offered it. Now, being a stammering NHS manager was one thing, but as you may imagine, the prospect of becoming a stammering lecturer fell way outside my comfort zone. Calling my new boss to accept the post, I protested "but my stammer - how will I get on with the lectures?" "Don't worry", she replied, "it's rather endearingî" To be honest, I did not feel sufficiently competent to take on this challenge, but with hard work and plenty of luck, a course was successfully launched. With regard to the stammer, the only option was to buckle down and get on with it. So I informed my first lecture theatre full of students that some unexpected gyrations or facial contortions may occur, and these would be caused by a stutter rather than any other habit. And so for several years I stuttered profusely during lectures, but no-one appeared to laugh, and amazingly no complaints were made.

Being a public health academic was all very well, but I felt a need to update my practical skills to inform the academic activities. An opportunity to re-join the NHS in my current role as a specialist in public health presented itself, a job I am enjoying very much. I am also able to combine public health practice with acadaemia, thanks to a professorship in epidemiology that I now hold.

So installation technician to professor - that's not a bad career progression, is it? Of course, none of this would have happened without the many opportunities I have been given by people who saw through the stammer and believed in me.

By far the most important event since 1993 is that I have become a father, and have two gorgeous and exuberant children aged 6 and 11. They find the stutter a little quirky, but do not make fun of it. One intriguing point is that my family and several students tell me that they no longer notice my stammer. Indeed, it is significant that I have never come across anyone within either the NHS or acadaemia who appears to have a problem with my stammer ń a very different situation to my experience in industry.

So what's the point of this article? To make me sound like a lucky chap? Not really. The point is that we stammerers all have potential, but people sometimes want to make us feel inferior. When I was 18, a women, whose rudeness I am told was justified by her occupying a ěposition of trustî at work, told me that with a stammer I would could never aspire to anything beyond a basic manual job. I have taken pride in spending the last 27 years defying her! Although these individuals would use their narrow-mindedness to deny us our deserved success, we must believe in ourselves and be strong in our determination to break through these barriers. Then, with luck, we can triumph and conquer the flames of bigotry.


1. Elias L. Myths surrounding left-handedness. Accessed online 06/06/2006 at: http://web.archive.org/web/20040203173936/http://duke.usask.ca/~elias/left/myths.htm

2. Stewart T. Stammerers at work. Speaking Out - Magazine of the Association for Stammerers 1993;14:2:4.

The author is grateful to Professor Judith Kuster at Minnesota State University for providing advice and source material on historical elements of stammering and left-handedness.

You can post Questions/comments about the above paper to the authors before October 22, 2006.

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