Has stuttering affected your career?

illustrationI’m fidgeting in my chair.  The room is cold – not just the air – but also the room itself. I wait as the next speaker walks without haste to the front of the room. I’m at a work all-staff meeting, an annual event intended to have all of us sit together for a day to team-build.

When the speaker talks, I immediately notice the very slow deliberate tempo of his speech. Listening more intently, I start to pick out fluency techniques. He is good. No disfluency. “He is a fellow stutterer”, I think to myself. And smile.

 A couple days later meet with my team of a dozen engineers to discuss work items.  I think to ask how they appreciated the all-staff meeting.  Immediately, many bring up the communication style of my fellow stutterer from a few days ago. The agreement amongst my staff is that he was difficult to listen to – not because of his stuttering but his slow pace of speech. 

none of my teammates seemed to recognize his speech disabilityI surprise myself when I offer, “I think he stutters just like I do. His slow pace is his way of dealing with it.  I don’t think you understand how challenging it can be for someone who stutters to speak in public.”

Everyone becomes quiet.  I believe my interjection is understood, but I lose the courage and opportunity to have a discussion with my team on my own stuttering: the challenges, the bad days, the ups and downs.

Later that day, I am saddened that none of my teammates seemed to recognize his speech disability.  Stuttering, in my opinion, continues to be largely misunderstood.

My history

I have stuttered mildly to moderately all my life.  Only in my adulthood did I seek out speech therapy, essentially to help address my anxiety of speaking in public.

The first years of my career I worked as a consultant with little to no public speaking.  This changed in 2002 when I landed a job with the federal government. Suddenly this handicap that I hadn’t paid much attention to since making presentations in school, became a source of fear and sadly, also shame.

Over the past decade, I’ve come a long way in accepting my dysfluency. The work situations where I allow myself to stutter without getting down on myself are constantly expanding.

Despite my struggles, I’ve almost never requested any sort of accommodation for my handicap to carry out my daily duties.  This is probably in large part because I myself did not feel comfortable opening that door. I’ve discussed my anxiety and tried to explain the challenges I face with supervisors and some colleagues in advance of particularly overwhelming speaking engagements. The times I have opened up were met with empathy and for my most curious colleagues, with an opportunity for them to ask questions. 

The only time I’ve sought some form of accommodation was to contact human resources ahead of job interviews to have them share with the interviewers that I stutter.  Having the interviewers know ahead of time that I stutter helped to ease the pressure.  At the interview, I offered to answer any questions they may have on stuttering and how it has impacted my work.

Getting support at work

If you think you could benefit from accommodation in the workplace and don’t know where to start, reflecting on the following question may yield some answers: “In what ways is my stuttering impacting my job satisfaction, my performance and my ability to achieve my career goals?”

 Accommodation could simply be time and resources to attend speech therapyThe answer probably will contain elements of what types of accommodation could be most helpful to you. If you are lucky enough that in your workplace you have a set process to discuss learning and professional development, this may be the opportunity to initiate a dialogue on your stuttering. Accommodation could simply be time and resources to attend speech therapy, or maybe being offered a more private office space if much time is spent on the phone. Your employer could also support and encourage opportunities to raise awareness. No matter the accommodation, I believe for many of us, the first step is to assess what may be helpful and then to start the discussion.

For those interested in this topic, there are numerous existing online resources, including this information from the British Stammering Association.

Coping, addressing and working through stuttering in the workplace is an issue many of us have to face.  If you are aware of resources and are willing to share personal stories, please contact me.  Working with the Canadian Stuttering Association, I’m looking to gather useful links and helpful tips to help employers and employees engage in this important dialogue!

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