Professor Deborah Johnston is a person who stammers. A professor of development economics and Pro-Director (Learning and Teaching) at SOAS University of London, she is currently supporting the implementation of the Inclusion@SOAS strategy.
Stammering affects 1% of adults worldwide, suggesting approximately 23,200 students in UK higher education are affected by stammering (using 2016/17 data). However, stammering seems to be the most invisible of ‘hidden disabilities’. While it is defined as a disability and covered by the Equalities Act, few people who stammer (PWS) exercise their rights. This article argues that there is evidence that PWS can be excluded and discriminated at university, and that in some cases, this might be worsened by unreflective moves towards innovative pedagogy.
The British Stammering Association (BSA) note that stammering is identified by a tense struggle to get words out, involving the speaker blocking, prolonging or repeating sounds. Stammering is a neurological condition, with genetic and developmental influences, arising from malcoordination of the complex brain networks that enable speech production. As well as the physical manifestations of stammering, there is a large experiential and emotional component, including strong emotions towards stammering and oneself, such as frustration, sadness, embarrassment, shame and anxiety. As a result, stammering is not simply speech disfluency, but a complex communication issue which can affect one’s confidence, self-esteem and self-efficacy.
The ‘Stammerers Through University Consultancy’ (STUC) partners with many universities and they help identify how PWS can be disadvantaged in university. Stammering can affect how someone participates in class, gets involved in group work and takes part in both assessed and formative verbally-based exercises. Students may avoid modules they would like to take because assessment is based on verbal ability.
The impact of stammering
This impact of stammering on university settings is supported by academic research that shows both that many PWS feel that their life has been limited by stammering and also clear evidence of negative stereotyping and stigma faced by PWS. Of particular interest is that fact that many studies of negative stereotyping are carried out with university students and suggest clear evidence that students that do not stammer are likely to make negative judgments of fellow students that do not (see most recently Boyle Blood and Blood (2009) who also provide a good summary of past research).
This evidence matters more than ever, because verbal testing, group collaboration and group presentations are used increasingly in the sector. This is the result of two distinct pressures. First, there is an increasing desire to test employment-relevant skills, and verbal presentation skills form part of the diverse approaches that allow skills to be assessed. Second, verbal assessment, particularly when it involves group work, can be a cost-effective approach to assessment. Either way, verbal skill and group work are becoming important outside of the more traditional areas that have tended to use oral testing, such as language acquisition.
At the same time, students who stammer are likely to have had limited support with their stammering. Access to speech and language therapists can be a lottery based on postcode and income, and a recent BSA YouGov poll found that while 69% of UK adults either know someone who stammers, stammer themselves or stammered as a child, only 7% know of a charity able to offer support.
Without effective knowledge and support for people who stammer being available, the environmental barriers grow, preventing fair and equal opportunity for people who stammer. Students who stammer may not be able to easily find support for stammering or realise that they can ask for reasonable adaptations in settings that would otherwise exclude them or disadvantage them.
Support inclusion for those who stammer in university
The BSA produce information sheets for both students and lecturers that provide a host of ways to support people who stammer in informal classroom interactions as well as a list of adaptations that can be made to assessed verbal presentations. These adaptations include providing people who stammer options of longer presentation times, the potential to record presentations, to present to smaller groups or to substitute presentations with other forms of assessment. Importantly these are adaptations that aim to help students overcome their communication difficulties to showcase their understanding of a subject. Indeed, the discussion of stammering is useful in reminding academic colleagues that they need to ensure they are rewarding content and not fluent speech in any assessed work (apart from those rare subjects where fluency is a genuine learning outcome). Our view is that an environment that provides appropriate support and opportunities for people who stammer is one that is positive for all students.