Fluent communication is something most people take for granted. Of course, everyone has their slip-ups from time to time; if you stumble over your words in a presentation or a job interview, you might put it down to nerves, stress, or tiredness. Yet for 1% of us globally, the threat that your own voice will suddenly lock up, leaving you with a word stuck in your throat, is very real. As I write this, Joe Biden has just won the US presidential race, making him one of the few world leaders to noticeably stammer. But instead of celebrating a stammering president, his disability seems to be brushed under the carpet, as if in the hopes to hide it away. The misconception that stuttering is merely stumbling over your words once in a while downplays its status as a disability, which, ironically, makes it harder for stammerers to make our own voices heard and have our experiences taken seriously.
A stutter is "the audible equivalent of ellipsis and can often feel like you’re living life on mute while everyone else is telling you to turn the volume up."
I do not stutter; I have a stutter. It’s an important distinction to make. It’s not something that happens to me, it is a part of me. There’s no point pretending it’s not there. My stutter is known as a block stammer, where my voice locks up and refuses to cooperate. It’s the audible equivalent of ellipsis and can often feel like you’re living life on mute while everyone else is telling you to turn the volume up. Block stammers are worsened by social situations that rely on scripts, such as introducing yourself in class, reading an extract from a book, or ordering a drink from a bar.
When I first came to Surrey in 2017, I knew the University would be full of these scripts. As an English Literature and Creative Writing student, I’d come to university to pursue my interest with language; ironically, given that words are in many ways my greatest nemesis. Perhaps my fascination with words stems from the fact that there are so many I am prevented from saying; writing enables me to say the words that my voice forbids to articulate. As a young boy, I’d read the dictionary and find synonyms to help me get by – an escape tactic I still use today whenever I’m stuck in the middle of the sentence. This has its perks; you sound a lot smarter than you are when you say ‘facilitate’ instead of ‘deliver.’
Of course, there are those moments of script-like conversation when no replacement words can help you out of the situation. I am uniquely blessed with the fact that I struggle with the letter J. My name also happens to be James. If I had a pound for every time someone assumed I’d forgotten my name, I would have paid off my student debt by now. Introducing yourself to a group of strangers in your first seminar is something that almost everyone finds excruciating, but for people who stammer, it is a uniquely nerve-wracking experience. It’s as though voice is challenging you to a game of Russian Roulette. If you get it right, you’re over the moon; if you get it wrong, all you can muster is the faint clicking sound of an empty barrel.
After one of my first-year creative writing workshops, I stayed behind to show my seminar tutor a poem I’d written about my stammer. She sat and listened as I shakily read it out. When I finished, she described it as having ‘all the right words in all the right places’. This came as a shock to me, as someone who had spent so many years finding the wrong words to replace the right ones. This was the first of several mini revelations that, alongside the amazing support system of my uni friends, made me realise I should start taking ownership of my voice.
This has not come without its challenges. When the bad days come, you feel a wall building in your chest, and you just know that your voice is not going to cooperate today. One bad day I remember came when I was invited to read a story at the Guildford Book festival. I was confident that I could do it up until we got there and I felt that brick wall building itself up in my chest.
"Taking ownership of your voice when you have a stutter isn’t about learning to stammer less, but remembering that you have a right to speak."
‘I don’t think I’m going to be able to do this,’ I said to my friend. He offered to read it for me and did the story justice in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to. The story went down well and both my friend and I had people coming up to us after the event to tell us how much they liked our writing. The experience wasn’t the motivational, overcoming odds story that you might want, but this isn’t a story; this is my life. What mattered was that people liked my writing. They liked how I placed words one after another, even if they were on paper.
The greatest push out of my comfort zone was while I was on placement here at the University as an Eduintern. Working in the university was an intimidating experience; during the first few weeks, I had to give many introductions and found myself speaking to senior officials. The placement proved a good opportunity to exercise my public speaking, even in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic as I took part in the Department of Higher Educations Webinar series, delivering a webinar on the transition to online learning to 140 participants. This was a momentous step in my journey; the biggest audience I had ever talked to. I spoke in other webinars following this, and by the end, the series had amassed over 1000 participants. None of these webinars were entirely fluent, but when I did stammer, I didn’t let it detract from the fact that I was speaking to more people than I ever thought possible. Afterwards, a colleague told me that he liked the way I ‘steamrolled’ through my sentences.
The university experience is about self-discovery. The greatest thing that I have learned since being at university is to accept this fact: I have a stammer and that is okay. What has changed the most isn’t how I speak, but how open I am about the way I do. I support the STAMMA charity and post on social media every 22nd October to celebrate Stammering Awareness Day; it’s important to be vocal about something so silencing, to give voice to those who haven’t found theirs yet. It’s important to remember that your voice has power.
The journey still isn’t over. There’s a long way still to go and many more brick walls to break through. Taking ownership of your voice when you have a stutter isn’t about learning to stammer less, but remembering that you have a right to speak. That’s how you unmute yourself: by making yourself heard, one word at a time.