Coping with a Stammer“People seem to think that it’s actually ok to treat a person with a stutter like they don’t matter.” 

As heard on The Ryan Tubridy Show

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There are a lot of ways you could talk about Sandra Kelly after hearing her on Tuesday’s Ryan Tubridy Show. You could say that she’s brave, she’s honest, that going on the radio to talk about her stammer has to be challenging and must have been nerve-wracking and isn’t she amazing for doing it? And all these things would be true, but they still come across as a little patronising of a woman who’s had a stammer since she was 3 years old and has had to tolerate the casual thoughtlessness of other people on a daily basis. The conversation has plenty of examples of thoughtlessness – and sometimes thoughtlessness is the polite way of putting it – starting with Sandra’s experience asking for directions to the showers at last year’s Electric Picnic: 

He responded with, ‘Are you looking for the shshsh-showers?’ And himself and his whole line burst out laughing into our faces.” 

Nothing thoughtless about that – it’s just downright mean. And it made Sandra feel so bad that she left Electric Picnic on the second day: 

“That’s how much it affected me and humiliated me. It was absolutely dreadful.” 

Ordering food at a Drive-Thru restaurant can be quite an ordeal for Sandra as well: 

“I’d be trying to order something and the person on the intercom would often start laughing.” 

Sandra told Ryan that her stammer has got progressively worse as she’s got older. Primary school wasn’t too bad, but secondary school was difficult. Other pupils would mock her speech and, although she was academically bright – getting straight As – she felt that she was labelled as not particularly intelligent. Ryan asked her about dating. That hasn’t been easy either. The majority of the time, she told him, when she’s been texting a man via a dating site, as soon as she mentions that she stutters, the man stops texting. By way of illustration, Sandra went on to tell Ryan about a date she’d had, meeting a guy she’d been texting in bar: 

He said to me, ‘What drink would you like?’ And I was stuttering on Coke and he said to me, ‘Wow’. He laughed and says, ‘Oh Jaysus, are you ok there?’ And I said, ‘Oh, like, I stutter.’ And he laughed and said, ‘Oh, you should have told me that when I was texting you.’ And I just then walked out.” 

Encounters like that have shattered Sandra’s confidence when it comes to dating. And the sort of treatment she gets in shops and restaurants and from ignoramuses on dating sites is common place, something that Sandra argues should not be acceptable. Part of the problem, she feels is that people aren’t educated about stammering.  

“Stuttering isn’t classed as a disability, but, like, just say if a person with, say, Down syndrome was laughed at, you would be told – fairly quick – you can’t do that. But like, people seem to think that it’s actually ok to treat a person with a stutter like they don’t matter.” 

It is true that we tend to see stammering less as a disability and more as something of a personal failing, somehow. Ryan brought up the issue of people finishing words and sentences for people who stammer. It’s a huge issue for Sandra: 

“That is actually the worst thing anybody – it’s dreadful. Like, it actually makes you stutter worse... It makes you feel so stupid and so intimidated.” 

Sandra Kelly is well worth listening to in full – and you can do that here – as she and Ryan talk about Joe Biden, her work and changing people’s attitudes to stammering. Brave indeed. 

Niall Ó Sioradáin 

© The Listener 2020

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