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A new guide to support students who stammer

22 Jun 2021 | Deborah Johnston, Gillian Rudd, Rob Grieve and Jo Barlow With a broad estimate suggesting there are between 24,000 and 71,000 students who stammer in the UK, a new guide has been produced to assist higher education (HE) professionals when they are supporting students who stammer to achieve a positive and inclusive HE experience.

While 1-3% of the adult population are known to stammer, many HE professionals often have limited experience to draw upon to inform their practice. However, evidence suggests that stammering can affect the entire student journey:

  • the decision to go to university or the course chosen
  • the marks a student receives and their engagement
  • the career impact of a degree

‘Supporting Students Who Stammer In Higher Education’ is a new resource is written for the following staff in higher education: Leaders of teaching and learning; Course directors; Disability advisors; and Study skills advisors. 

It is intended to help HE staff to ensure that students who stammer have the support they need to be able to access, remain and succeed within HE. It sets out approaches to implement as a minimum the ‘reasonable steps’ required under the Equality Act 2010 to make sure that students who stammer are not treated less favourably than other students, and it sets out case studies for good practice.

While some students who stammer will have an entirely positive experience at university, many will face obstacles to success. However, the guide explains the structural reasons why few will disclose a stammer or will know that they can draw on support from disability services.

As a result, the report suggests that the most important approach universities can use is to develop inclusive environments that allows flexibility in assessment and engagement from the start. This will help establish a proactive approach, rather than waiting for issues to emerge. 

Importantly, by advertising their support for people who stammer, universities are likely to find that more students who stammer will reach out for advice. The report lists approaches that might assist, but also argues that colleagues should work closely with students to understand their needs. Stammering can be diverse in its presentation and its impact on a student. 

A key concern is the extent to which fluency is included in marking guidelines for assessed oral presentations. Academic colleagues are encouraged to remove fluency in their marking criteria (unless it is genuinely a course learning outcome). They should consider referring to ‘effective communication’ in learning outcomes or assessment criteria, and rethink how and why assessed oral presentations should be used. Examples are given of alternatives or modifications to assessed oral presentations to make them more inclusive.

Academic leaders are also encouraged to consider how student activities can be made more accessible. The results of focus groups show that social activities or group activities can be challenging for students who stammer, especially when positive, inclusive ground rules have not been established.

Placements, internships and international experience are all seen to be important for long-term career success, but advice and support is rarely tailored for students who stammer. HE institutions should provide students who stammer with tailored support to prepare them for making the transition into employment, including advice on disclosure of a disability, information on employment rights and support, such as Access to Work. 

In conclusion, stammering is a common speech difference but one that is widely misunderstood and overlooked in universities. This guide provides advice on how to establish an environment in which the contributions of students who stammer are valued regardless of whether they are stammered or spoken fluently.

I completely understand students not wishing to disclose their stammer, whether through embarrassment, potential lack of appropriate support or because they do not identify themselves as disabled. I never really thought of my stammer as a disability but, thinking retrospectively, it has put significant limitations on my life, education and career.

I finally started my degree at 47, but had I known, aged 18, that there would be support and advice for me at university, then that would have made a life-changing difference. Stammering can pose a significant barrier to learning, but with appropriate support and guidance, students that stammer can achieve anything that they wish to."

Jo Barlow, a member of the OFS Student Panel

Download Supporting Students Who Stammer In Higher Education

Professor Deborah Johnston is Pro-Vice Chancellor (Education) at London South Bank University. She is a person who stammers and a commissioner on the Disabled Students Commission. Her academic work focuses on the political economy of poverty and wellbeing.

Gillian Rudd is Joint Course Lead for the MSc Speech and Language Therapy programme and a Senior Lecturer at Birmingham City University (BCU). She is a speech and language therapist, a Trustee for Stamma (the British Stammering Association) and co-founder of the Birmingham Stammering Network.

Dr Rob Grieve is a senior lecturer in physiotherapy at the University of the West of England and a Senior Fellow HEA. Apart from his physiotherapy lecturer and researcher role, he actively runs workshops and supports students with a fear of public speaking. As a person with a stammer he was a trustee of the British Stammering Association from 2017-2020.

Jo Barlow is a member of the OfS Student Panel. A mature student, she is studying English Literature at the Open University and is a person who stammers. Based in Cornwall, she is a proof-reader and author.

Find out more about the Disabled Students’ Commission

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