Kirstie Abrahams, Accessibility and Wellbeing Adviser, discusses the
difficulties of finding support at university for those who stammer.
Starting University is a daunting experience for anyone, it’s seen to be a time to make friends, socialise and immerse yourself into all University Life can offer you.
I work as a Accessibility and Wellbeing Adviser at University of Essex. We currently have c1000 students registered with our Service.
Stammering affects 1% of adults worldwide, which would suggest that around 23,000 students and 4.000 staff in the UK Higher Education experience stammering.
There are many invisible disabilities; however, stammering seems to be the most invisible of “hidden disabilities”. While it is defined as a disability and covered by the 2010 Equality Act, few people who stammer exercise their rights.
I was very interested to support students who stammer having an older brother who experiences this. Growing up, I never really noticed his stammer but I remember being aware of other people’s reactions and that they didn’t always know how to be supportive.
Interestingly, the actual number of students I support are less than 5 which is a low percentage for the total number of students we have at the University (c15,000).
So, why aren’t students disclosing? Is it that they don’t feel that a stammer is a disability? Not sure of the support available and if it would be useful? Negative experiences of support at School/College? Stigma?
I would definitely encourage any new student to register for support. The University can, with consent, formally notify the Department of reasonable adjustments which can include presentations and ongoing support for the duration of study.
Normally, I discuss with the student directly what has been useful for them in the past, i.e., extra time for a presentation, delivery to a smaller group, consideration of mode of delivery, alternative delivery (use of PowerPoint/audio-visual aids, to take pressure off speech). In group work, roles could be divided up so that the person who stammers (if he/she does not want to speak) prepares PowerPoint slides and other students actually speak.
Those first few weeks’ of starting University can be make or break time. A few years ago I met an overseas student “John” from Hong Kong who had started in early October; our first meeting was in December. John hadn’t disclosed a disability on his application so had received no contact from our Services on how to register with us. I sat with John for a while whilst he explained that he had a stammer and hadn’t fully spoken to one person since October. He had tried to communicate and was left feeling embarrassed; his flat mates and course peers weren’t engaging with him as stopped replying to them when they asked him questions.
Socially, John hadn’t joined the Sports Centre or any Societies, despite having a passion for tennis. In the space of a few weeks his world had turned upside down and his mental wellbeing was affected. University was proving to be a very isolating experience.
At the time we supported John with key contacts within the Sports Centre and introductions. We also formally notified the Department who made contact with John directly and also liaised with a contact within John’s accommodation who also reached out.
John had never explored speech therapy and made contact with the On-Campus GP to explore this further.
During his time at University I remained John’s named Adviser, we had regular contact and his speech, confidence and wellbeing during his studies increased significantly.
I agree that a whole staff awareness policy on stammering should support the student and build confidence so that he/she does not underachieve; this support should be across the University from Admissions (interviews) to Career support.
Collaboration with STUC via the workshops Claire ran were really well received by students and staff. We have since, started a programme whereby students with speech dysfluency can be matched with a second year Speech and Language Therapy (SLT) student for one to one support as part of the SLT student’s placement.