Universities urged to rethink support for stammerers

Unhelpful advice often based upon myths, says consultant

January 22, 2019

Misconceptions can often hold back stammerers in higher education, a conference has heard.

When Claire Norman was in the final year of a French degree at the University of Warwick, she realised that “a French speaking test” was going to make up “quite a large proportion of [her] overall marks”. Since she stammers, she went to see the disability services team and “expressed concerns about being potentially marked down…They just told me to breathe and relax, and everything would be fine.”

This unhelpful advice, based on a typical “media myth” about stammering, led Ms Norman to “wonder how many other people were in the same position” and to set up Stuc (Stammerers Through University Consultancy). She has organised a series of focus groups in universities with students and staff who stammer, and fed back recommendations to their institutions. Last weekend, Stuc also hosted a conference titled “Silence on Campus: Making a Noise About Stammering”.

So what are the key messages that universities need to take on board?

“All universities show a huge lack of understanding,” Ms Norman told Times Higher Education. She urged them to reflect about assessment criteria on their courses, and whether coursework wasn’t often a valid alternative to presentations. This would not only reassure existing students who stammer but encourage those who had been put off to think of applying.

Ms Norman cited cases of people keen to work in marketing, for example, who were deterred by “all the presentations and emphasis on the communications and PR side” on the relevant university courses and so opted to study maths, knowing that they would just have to “sit in a classroom and take notes”. She also recalled someone who “didn’t get the grades they needed at A level for their choice of university and had to go through clearing. The only way they could do that was to call up each university to ask if they had any spare places, but they really struggled to use the phone and got panic attacks. They actually ended up not going to university.” Universities needed to consider alternative channels of communications such as Skype, which incorporates a text function, she argued.  

As an example of good practice, Ms Norman pointed to a scheme at the University of York “where a staff member mentors each student who stammers. They will meet up regularly to give the student a chance to speak openly in a place where they won’t be judged.” Such mentors could themselves have a stammer or be training to be a speech therapist.

Another useful initiative, suggested Ms Norman, would be a change to Ucas’ application form, since potential students “have to tick the ‘other’ box under disabilities, because there isn’t a specific category for speech problems. If there was an option to tick ‘speech difficulties’, it would help the university know early on that they might have a student who stammers and to look at how to support them.”


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