Every year on 22 October I make sure I show my support for International Stammering Awareness Day (ISAD). So, this year when people ask me why I am wearing a green ribbon, I will be able to tell them that I have an interiorised stammer and that it is as much part of who I am as my nose and my smile. It is so important that we all help raise awareness about the challenges that 1 per cent of the population encounter daily – that’s almost 750,000 people in the UK who have a stammer!
I am the vice-president of Action for Stammering Children (ASC), a charity that supports children and young people to get speech and language therapy for their stammer. Stammering is a communication issue affecting far more people than many realise. In fact, Ed Sheeran and Emily Blunt were two of 150,000 children in the UK who stammer and – like me – continue to stammer in adulthood.
I hadn’t realised I had a stammer until I was in my forties when I became a politician. I knew I had a problem with public speaking, that sometimes I couldn’t get my words out. My dad told me that sometimes when he listened to me on the radio or watched me on TV he could tell I had the same problem that he did – but we didn’t know what it was. I finally decided to address the issue by seeing a speech and language therapist, who confirmed I had an interiorised stammer.
It was during this time I got involved with ASC, based in the world-renowned Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children in London. I regularly visit the centre and meet children and young people who are on a two-week group therapy course with other young people who stammer. It’s here I learnt about the distinct types of an identified stammer that are characterised by repetitions, prolongations and blocking of sounds. There is so much that we can do to help children who stammer and it’s here I remind the young people that having a stammer should not stop them from achieving their dreams.
ASC research shows that children who stammer often feel isolated, lonely, sad and very frustrated. They prefer to stay quiet, avoid social situations, steer clear from classroom activities and find it difficult to make friends, which can sometimes result in them being teased and bullied at school.
But getting specialist help and being open about having a stammer can really help. My stammer didn’t hold me back from being a politician and from learning how to dance on Strictly Come Dancing in front of 10 million people on Saturday nights, and neither did it stop Ed Sheeran or Emily Blunt from becoming international stars.
No child should be ashamed of their stammer and no child should suffer alone. Which is why in 2016 the charity supported more than 4,000 children and young people between two and 25 years old by funding specialist assessments, therapy and training for speech and language therapists that truly changes lives. Through a range of initiatives, ASC wants children and young people who stammer to have the same opportunities as their peers.
We hope that ISAD will encourage more people to learn about stammering and encourage adults, parents/carers, teachers and speech and language professionals to know how and when to seek specialist help.
To celebrate the day this year, ASC organised a meeting of its inspiring Youth Panel, a group aged between 13 and 25 who stammer, who held a live Q&A via the ASC Facebook page, inviting members of the public to ask them questions about their stammer.
Although some children will grow out of their stammer, many will not. It is important for a child who stammers to be diagnosed as early as possible – the earlier you begin speech therapy, the more chance a child has of learning to manage their stammer and to truly fulfil their true potential.
I hope that next year you will join me and wear a green ribbon to mark International Stammering Awareness Day, and help unlock a child’s voice.
If you require further information, visit ASC’s website at www.actionforstammeringchildren.org or contact its specialist helpline, which is run by the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children, on 020 3318 8100.