My Fight To Remove The 'Stammer Stigma' In The Armed Forces

"I have stammered since the age of three, and this ‘speech difference’ has had a profound effect on my career and approach to life..."

'Stammering - The Unspeakable Truth' is a new programme looking at members of the Armed Forces with the speech impediment. We asked author and founder of the Defence Stammering Network Walter Scott to write about how having a stammer has impacted his life and career. 

It has been four years since Jimmy Lang, Emmanuel Ottih and I agreed that it was time to have a serious go at building a support group for colleagues who stammer.

We made our pact in a Chinese restaurant near Sandhurst, and today the Defence Stammering Network has just over 100 members, with a senior champion in the form of Brigadier James Woodham. 

Meeting Jimmy and Emmanuel was a significant moment for me.

I have stammered since the age of three, and this ‘speech difference’ has had a profound effect on my career and approach to life.

In particular, selection interviews have always been difficult territory, right from my first interview at the age of 18 for the initial round of Army Scholarship selection, when I learnt that my application could go no further because I was dysfluent during a short interview.

I imagine (and hope) that present-day selection methods are a bit more enlightened, but for an 18-year-old deliberating over his career options, this was quite a stark message.

A photo from the Defence Stammering Network launch (Picture: Rory Sheridan).

On occasion, stammering has taken me to the depths of despair and worry.

Over the years I have gradually confronted my fears about negative perception.

This has been partly through different forms of speech therapy, partly through forcing myself into public speaking situations, and latterly accepting that stammering is just an inherent part of my identity – take it or leave it.

By the time I met Jimmy and Emmanuel in 2014, I had begun to recognise the social stigma of stammering as a semi-political issue, a struggle against cultural standards and norms.

I wanted to get campaigning and here, it seemed, were two ideal fellow campaigners, both keen public speakers.

Over our chow mein and dim sum, Jimmy, Emanuel and I compared our respective personal and professional backgrounds.

We found that we had many difficult experiences in common from childhood, at school with staff or certain fellow pupils, and as we were finding our feet in our early careers.

We agreed that much of this was less about malice or direct discrimination, and more about lack of knowledge.

For me, the challenge in my working life has been not so much the mildly aggravating speech hurdles, but dealing with those who lack understanding and acceptance for how I speak.

While the root cause of stammering is known to be neural, I am always aware of the inaccurate beliefs in society – that stammering is caused by nervousness, uncertainty, poor verbal skills, or trauma.

Added to which, I recognise it is hard for those who enjoy lifelong fluency to imagine how a stammer might impact on behavioural patterns, career direction, wellbeing and mental health, word choice and grammatical structures in spoken language, and relationships.

So we set up the Defence Stammering Network primarily as a forum to provide mutual support, inspiration and advice, but also to raise awareness and knowledge.

We soon also began drawing on network members’ experiences to develop policy guidance and other online information resources.

Our members began attending Equality & Diversity and health events to set up information stalls and give talks about stammering.

With every new military or civilian member to the network came a new set of experiences and ideas.

In late 2014, we approached Forces TV with a proposal for our first documentary, which resulted in Amy Matthews’ award-winning 'My War With Words'.

If you have watched it, you may have noticed that I have a crowd-pleasing “emotional moment” while speaking about my pride in working with Jimmy and Ottih.

Since then, the Network has launched in the House of Lords, run awareness events, advised commanders and line managers, intervened in cases of unfair treatment, featured in the national media, fund-raised to provide speech therapy, supported US military personnel in the setting up their own network, delivered many talks and speeches, and received various awards and a couple of MBEs.

In much of this work we have collaborated closely with the British Stammering Association and its growing Employers Stammering Network and we are endlessly grateful for their support and expertise.

So when I learnt earlier this year that Amy was back at Forces TV, I decided that the Network was ripe for another documentary.

Amy’s interest in our story and her determination to get to the nub of what it really means to have a stammer was endlessly professional.

The product of her work – The Unspeakable Truth – together with Jimmy’s appearances on BBC Breakfast and 5 Live, is a triumph.

Listen to Walter Scott’s recent TEDx talk about changing social attitudes towards stammering below: