Stuttering no impediment to success

The release of the film “The King’s Speech,” a film starring notable British actor Colin Firth, casts stuttering—a prevalent condition that employers are likely to encounter in employees and job applicants—in a new light. The movie highlights the personal and professional obstacles that affect people who stutter, as well as many of the misconceptions surrounding the condition.

Changing Perceptions

Stuttering affects around one percent of the adult population, equivalent to more than three million people in the United States. Men are more likely to be affected than women and the severity of the condition is widely variable.

Dr. Tommie Robinson, president of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), hopes “The King’s Speech” will change various misconceptions about people who stutter. “There’s often a perception that they have lower intelligence or are less effective communicators,” he told SHRM Online. “As a result, I believe that many people who stutter are working in jobs that don’t maximize their skill capacity.”

Some believe that stuttering is a psychological disorder or something an individual can control. “People often think we can stop it if we want to,” said Barry Cohen, a university employment coordinator in New York, N.Y., who has stuttered since childhood. “A lot of people can’t understand why other people stutter. Many have a short tolerance and it makes them uneasy to have a conversation with someone who stutters.”

Stuttering is first and foremost a physical condition caused by involuntary closures of the mouth and other speech structures. These uncontrollable physical behaviors cause the sufferer’s speech to get stuck. Sounds or syllables might be repeated, delayed or prolonged. Involuntary facial expressions and body movements might be evident as well.

Emotional components of stuttering often develop as a consequence of the anxiety or awkwardness individuals experience when communicating. As a consequence, many people find that their stuttering worsens under pressure. This makes nerve-wracking situations such as job interviews and presentations especially challenging for people who stutter.

The reality, however, is that those who stutter are no more prone to nerves, shyness or emotional maladjustment than non-stutterers. They have no problems selecting the right words, only in getting them out. “People with communication disorders communicate—they simply communicate differently,” Robinson explained. “The actor James Earl Jones is a person who stutters. Joe Biden also has a stutter, yet they’re both considered great communicators.”

Accommodation Begins with Understanding

Cohen started his career selling dictionaries door-to-door on a commission-only basis when his stutter and shyness prevented him from performing well in job interviews. As a salesperson he developed coping mechanisms, such as substituting problematic words and apologizing when he stuttered in front of a customer.

The turning point in Cohen’s career came when his employer enrolled him in a public speaking course. “Each class member gave a two-minute presentation each week,” explained Cohen. “It bolstered my confidence since none of us were critics or criticized. In fact, I later became a class instructor.”  Cohen went on to become an area manager and was later recruited as the first national sales manager for Snapple Beverage Corporation. Today, he works as a career specialist and delivers seminars about job interviewing.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities and there are numerous cases where the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has found in favor of complainants discriminated against on the basis of having a stutter. In one case, an electronics mechanic who stuttered was overlooked for a permanent position on the basis of the employee having “poor communication skills.” The EEOC found that the employee communicated differently, but not poorly.

ASHA and other speech disfluency support and advocacy organizations, such as the National Stuttering Association, challenge employers to think about what sort of communication skills are needed to perform a job competently. An over-emphasis on oral communication skills often detracts from the value of writing, listening, speaking slowly and developing empathy; skills that people who stutter often possess in abundance.

“If you’re an employer with an employee who has a communication disorder,” Robinson said, “start a conversation with them and ask questions. Find out what sort of things they don’t feel comfortable doing. Ask the question ‘how can I help you?’ If you’re a person who stutters, part of the treatment process is to prevent avoidance behavior. Get it out in the open.”

Guidelines, Support and Advocacy

In order to communicate better with people who stutter, the National Stuttering Association offers the following general guidelines:

  • Speak normally in a relaxed manner.
  • Maintain natural eye contact, even when the person is stuttering.
  • Don’t finish the person’s sentence or suggest words.
  • Don’t equate hesitant speech with uncertainty.

The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) provides a range of practical accommodation strategies to meet the needs of those who stutter, such as removing telephone duties from a job description or providing a job applicant with interview questions in advance so that they have time to prepare without pressure. Employers can find more information about accommodating employees and job applicants who stutter on the JAN web site.

Additional information on stuttering can be obtained from the following education, advocacy and support groups:

  • American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
  • National Stuttering Association.
  • Stuttering Foundation of America.
  • International Stuttering Association.

Written by Kylie Hughes for The Society of Human Resource Management Online (shrm.org), United States

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