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  1. Culture
3 March 2016

Having a stammer is an everyday demon, not a single moment for feel-good TV

The Oscar-winning short film Stutterer is a rare pop culture depiction of what it’s actually like to have a stammer.

By Alex Taylor

It is obvious I am disabled – the wheelchair sees to that, but my real disability is far less visible. Every day I battle a stammer trying to silence me. It is a fight that cuts far deeper than cerebral palsy or my inability to walk.

I understand this admission will surprise many; as a society we have been brainwashed into believing physical appearance defines how easily we can fit into society and find our own happiness. In fact, freedom of expression is far more important. It is the key to our personality.

Living with a stammer makes this difficult, particularly when your ability to communicate can vary hugely depending on the situation. A fluent night out with friends can seem a distant memory when vocal cords clam up in a Monday office meeting. It is an everyday demon, a fact that mainstream portrayals, from The King’s Speech to Musharaf Asghar’s bold words on Educating Yorkshire, have conveniently forgotten. Outside the nicely packaged world of Hollywood and feel-good TV, one moment of fluency does not equal a lifetime – a temporary high lasting only as long as the next struggle.

Fortunately, the newly Oscar crowned short film Stutterer gives audiences a dose of the real-world reality. It is a vital piece of film making, not only for raising awareness, but also understanding, artfully smashing misconceptions. As a journalist for so long fearful of mentioning my stammer, it gives me a unique chance to set the record straight.

Director Benjamin Cleary, presents Greenwood (Matthew Needham) from the inside out – the fluent, articulate wit of his internal thoughts sharply contrasting his inability to verbalise. Shown struggling on the phone to his bank so severely that he is disconnected, only to then faultlessly run through the conversation in his head, the message is clear: a stammer is no barometer of intelligence.

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This is a conundrum I recognise all too painfully. People often think stammerers are held back by social anxiety, however, this in itself could not be further from the truth. I do not lack confidence in myself. Rather, it is the fear around the stammer and sense of public humiliation that causes the cycle of hesitation and self-loathing.

It does not help that, on the occasions I have trouble in public, people hastily see the wheelchair, assume I have a learning difficulty, and begin to speak insultingly slowly. As the seconds tick by, and confusion strikes across the face of the other person, my heart sinks. It magnifies my own frustration at not a being able to show who I really am – a fun-loving, dry-humoured bastard with two degrees and an unhealthy addiction to Mad Men.

In the words of the only other stammerer I knew growing up, who now holds a high flying job in the City: “It’s both the public shame and private guilt – a feeling I am letting myself down, that hurts the most.”

Despite my ability to manipulate language on paper, even a call to arrange a haircut, made in the privacy of my own home, causes so much worry I delay it for as long as possible. Eventually, I have no choice and make the call or end up looking like a long lost member of Guns and Roses.

That is until they introduced an online booking option.

The question has now become? do I take the easy route, or put into practice the speech techniques I have been taught?

This mental game of chess strikes at the heart of the war that goes on in every stammerer’s head.

But does this define me? No, certainly not. When I fill the right headspace and grow into my true self, nothing can stop me, the stammer is insignificant. And for the times my job demands interviewing people, I may not do so perfectly fluently, but no matter the interviewee, be it a band member or a politician, I ask the necessary questions. As for the writing, that’s often the easiest part – a completely even playing field where I am in full control.

Control of the stammer is also possible. It requires the same belligerent approach I take to interviewing, as well as a steadfast belief in myself. In the film Greenwood accepts that he “excels in the art of self-pity”, an uncomfortable recognition for any stammerer, but also the route to victory. The demon on my shoulder sometimes distorts reality to make itself my king, but only because I give it the power. If I remember who I am and what I am capable of, it has no chance.

For Greenwood this moment comes when he decides to take the plunge and accept an online date. For someone else it could be something entirely different, it is an intensely personal moment of triumph, outwardly silent, but deafeningly defiant in its message.

To quote my friend, “the stammer is part of me, but never all of me”. One battle does not win a war. 

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