The stutterer and his Career

If I didn’t stutter, I would probably have held a managing position. Many people who started in the company after me are now more senior than I. But I find telephone calls and meetings impossible to handle. It makes it very difficult to be promoted.

Dino, 39, a computer engineer.

Prejudice against stutterers is a huge problem. During the time I was looking for a job I was rejected quite a few times because of my speech. However, I do not feel that my speech affects my competence at work. I can say the words, but it takes a bit longer.

Philip, 36, an accountant.

During my national service I obtained the highest score in a particular course. When they found out about my stutter I was not allowed to continue with the subsequent promotion course. The work did not require particularly fluent speech.

Hannes, 30, an engineer.

It limits your ability to take the lead in situations. It is difficult to exercise authority if you can’t control your speech. It is difficult to influence people. But after I was promoted at work, things improved. You become more confident, you no longer have to prove yourself all the time. You are not so tense anymore.

Robin, 44, a sales manager.

The people quoted above – all members of the self-help group for stutterers of which I was part – are fortunate in that they did find employment in spite of the disorder, and function as employees notwithstanding various challenges and limitations. Other stutterers find themselves in a far worse situation. I know of a university graduate who resigned from his job because of his fear of the telephone and now makes a living repairing lawnmowers.

There is no doubt that stuttering can be a serious handicap in one’s career. In fact the stuttering problem is possibly most acutely felt in its effect on the stutterer’s career. Often it is forgotten that someone who earns a living uses his mouth as well as his hands. In a developed, westernised society, speech is an essential tool.

As regards employment it is, however, difficult to generalise. Some stutterers occupy responsible positions despite their dysfluency – they are professors, attorneys, etc. For some of these people stuttering may not be a big problem. Their blocks may not be that bad; their stuttering may involve sound repetition rather than insurmountable blocks rendering all speech impossible. Some of these people are more fluent for the very reason that they have achieved a position of authority which increased their self-confidence, thereby reducing tension levels to below their threshold. But in other cases stutterers live a life of embarrassment and stress, their careers perhaps nipped in the bud and opportunities limited in every possible way.

These employment problems strongly motivate some stutterers to improve their speech. Incidentally, there seems to be a striking contrast between the motivation of economically active stutterers compared to the relative apathy of so many teen stutterers to do something about their speech. One reason may be that the older person has had more experience of the real disadvantages of the disorder.

There is something tragic about this situation – during the years when stuttering has not yet established itself firmly, so many things contribute to postponing a confrontation with stuttering; when at last you become aware of the predicament in which you find yourself, it is that much more difficult to do something about it ...

Initially stuttering is an obstacle in the job-hunter’s way – even more so in today’s competitive employment market. When, and if, the stutterer does eventually find a job, he often discovers that his disability handicaps his career. This is especially due to the fact that senior positions are often managerial which by nature demands considerable interpersonal interaction.

Is discrimination necessary?

The big question is: To what extent can the discriminatory attitudes of some employers against stutterers be justified? This is a controversial issue within the stuttering community. Surely it depends on the type of work the stutterer has to perform as well as the severity and nature of the individual’s stuttering.

It may be that some occupations are unsuitable for stutterers. Airline pilots and air traffic controllers, for example, have the lives of many people in their hands. These occupations require the ability to give quick commands, and any hesitation may end in disaster. For similar reasons the eyesight of airline pilots should be beyond question. In the same way there should be no risk of speech hesitancy, particularly when under stress.

As far as other occupations are concerned, employers should guard against inflexible company policies excluding stutterers regardless of the circumstances. The employer should bear in mind that the stutterer does not necessarily stutter all the time. Moreover the listener’s response should be considered. I know of a professor, a brilliant neurologist, with a severe stutter. Nevertheless his students become used to his speech and listen to the content of his lectures rather than to his dysfluency.

The fact is that stuttering can be a real disability, in this respect similar to other communication disorders such as mutism or deafness. Fortunately this is increasingly being recognised by health authorities. In Russia, for instance, the soldiers who began to stutter in the wake of their experiences in the Afghanistan war may now claim a state subsidy, as stuttering is now recognised there as a valid war injury (Speaking Out, Autumn 1992, page 2).

Career choices for the stutterer: the ‘Demosthenes complex’

Teens who stutter and who have to make a career choice often wonder if their disability should influence their decision. Again this is a controversial issue. Some adult stutterers inspire teens with uplifting messages such as: ‘If you say you can’t, you won’t,’ etc. and that you shouldn’t allow a disability to stand in the way of what you want to do in life. Others are more cautious and point to the many speech-related problems faced by stutterers at work.

Teenagers who stutter should bear in mind that stuttering is a stress-related communication disorder, and that most work situations involve stress to a greater or lesser extent.

Advice about career choices naturally depends on several factors, for example the possibility that the teen will benefit from stuttering management techniques, that his self-confidence will improve or that the stuttering does not bother him that much anyway.

A career choice is a major decision, one of the most important decisions of one’ life, and it could be prudent to exercise caution in this respect. For some teen stutterers it may be better to choose an occupation in which fluent speech and high levels of stress do not play a decisive role. To simply ignore the problem, as I once did, and to want to become an advocate, for example, is to look for trouble.

Personally I believe that one should work from a position of strength. A stutterer in an occupation not requiring highly developed communication skills may perhaps at a later stage want to move into a more challenging and stressful role if he feels that he can cope with the demands.

This brings us to a pitfall for the teen stutterer: the ‘Demosthenes complex’. It has been found that many stutterers do in fact select careers that actually demand highly developed communication skills. What is the reason for this? As youngsters they cope with the problem by convincing themselves that they will get better; they daydream about how it will feel to speak fluently, as for example advocates, clergymen and politicians usually do. They see themselves as future fluent speakers. The next step is also to want to become an advocate, etc. In this way they prepare themselves for a career for which they may not be equipped ...

Admittedly few careers require no speaking skills at all. Even the draughtsman, accountant, auditor, actuary, technician, diamond-cutter, translator, copywriter, editor, botanist, radiologist, pathologist, anaesthesiologist, laboratory worker, designer and programmer/computer expert may occasionally have to talk to colleagues or customers, or use the telephone. However, these occupations are far less demanding in terms of speaking requirements than for example careers in law, the police, preaching, sales and the media.

Which careers then are particularly suitable for stutterers? I have already mentioned a few, and the answer seems obvious. Careers that involve speech – ie interpersonal relationships – as a primary duty should perhaps be avoided in favour of occupations that involve working with numbers, writing, appliances, objects and so forth and where stress is kept to a minimum. Job-seekers who stutter should carefully study the speaking requirements in different careers before making a decision.

Generalisation in this respect remains difficult. Certain occupations that require a large amount of oral work could benefit the speech and confidence of the stutterer due to their accompanying authority. Teaching is an example. I know several teachers who speak fluently when presenting a lesson even though they are stutterers. This is due to their obvious position of authority in a classroom situation – and being in a position of authority does seem to reduce speech-related stress for many stutterers.

One career that should be considered by stutterers is that of ... speech and language therapist. Quite a number of stutterers do in fact become therapists, and some of them, especially in the US, have become experts in their field. It could be of great assistance to the stutterer to become a therapist. The huge amount of attention you will of necessity give to speech and stuttering will increase your knowledge and management skills enormously, and may reduce your speech-related tension levels to below your threshold, so improving fluency. Your first-hand knowledge of stuttering will also allow you to provide even better help for fellow sufferers. It is nevertheless a career involving a service and oral communication, so that some measure of fluency would seem to be required.


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