Please Do Not Stutter In Our Inclusive Workplace

Published in the Dutch newspaper Trouw, 19 October 2023

One percent of the world’s population, can’t overcome stuttering despite therapy. While they learn to live productive lives, they are often discriminated against by ignorant employers and colleagues. It is time to enforce the Right to Stutter.

“Keep working on your speech impediment.” – my boss once wrote after a performance review. The managing editor of the renowned newspaper that prided itself in its progressive views on diversity and inclusion bluntly stated: “due to your stutter, you have limited room for development here.” When I mentioned to a colleague that one can live and work perfectly fine while stuttering, he said, ‘Haha, yes, that would be true emancipation, a stuttering journalist.’ As if I were making a joke…

Isolated from others, I spent years in copy-editing positions that did not involve oral communication, until I left and became an independent writer and editor. Would the newspaper, which had virtually no employees with disabilities, have had the audacity to tell a deaf journalist to keep working on their ‘hearing impediment’?

According to the latest research, 5-17 percent of people currently living have stuttered at some point in their lives. Recovery usually occurs before the age of seven. Stuttering children usually grow out of it, even without help. Recovery in adolescents and adults can happen but is quite rare. An estimated one percent of the world’s population continues to stutter. One percent of the population – that’s 78 million people worldwide – cannot fulfil their full potential if we don’t change attitudes towards stuttering.

People who stutter are expected to work on speaking more fluently. Last year, dozens of stuttering advocacy groups declared that this is unacceptable. On International Stuttering Awareness Day (October 22), the Declaration of the Right to Stutter called for awareness. In today’s attention for diversity and inclusion the experience of people who stutter is being completely overlooked.

The declaration struck a chord with me. As a severe stutterer, I have learned to find my way in work and life, but at critical junctions in my career (academic advice, job applications, performance reviews), I was told to “do something about” my stuttering. Whenever a new ‘miracle method’ was in the news, people felt compelled to recommend it to me. I was swindled out of tens of thousands of euros by therapists, speech therapists, and coaches. I tried everything to get rid of it. Nothing worked.

In recent years, I have relieved myself of the burdensome norm of fluency. I can live and work with stuttering just fine, and it would help if people accepted that. But less than fluent speech is usually perceived as problematic and severe stuttering as an insurmountable obstacle to performance at work. My request to do more reporting after ten years of copy editing at the newspaper was derided by colleagues. So, I decided to conduct interviews and report in my own time. When I submitted the copy, editors were skeptical and questioned my methods. Had I conducted interviews by email? No, I would say, just by speaking as I do now. They would gaze at me incredulously.

What happened to me is not an isolated case. The Dutch Stuttering Support Foundation (Stichting Support Stotteren) received this report: “My manager would only extend my contract if I spoke more fluently. This firm requirement made me even more insecure. I decided to start a new therapy.”  On behalf of the foundation, I decided to ask employers if their job openings were available to stuttering applicants. “We serve over a thousand customers per day”, an email from a Shell gas station in the Dutch village Niebert said. “Handling time is 34 seconds per customer on average. You’re talking all day. Of course, I have no problem with people who stutter moderately as long they meet the expected time per client. This is to prevent long lines at the checkout counter.”

Shell is not an exception. At KPN, a big Dutch telecommunications company, employees may not stutter in the store, but they can silently pull cables. The court of justice in the city of Leeuwarden prefers not to have a stuttering clerk, “because after the session, you actively participate in the council chamber meeting.” The court assured us that they don’t exclude anyone in advance, keeping the anti-discrimination clause in the Dutch constitution in mind, but said, “just realize that a clerk also does a lot of speaking.” How about assistant kitchen installer, then? The UWV employee who served as an intermediary for this position said, “In this role, you have a lot of direct contact with people. A bit of stuttering won’t be a problem. Severe stuttering, however, will.” He explained over the phone, “Just like you won’t stand a chance as a driver without a driver’s license.” Not a single employer in our sample asked: “What do you need to communicate effectively in this job?”.

The Right to Stutter is technically already anchored in the Disability Convention of the United Nations. Now in 2023, it’s time to enforce that right. You wouldn’t tell a person in a wheelchair to keep trying to walk. You would not tell deaf person to keep working on their hearing. And you shouldn’t tell someone who stutters to first improve their speech before they are eligible for positions or promotions. An employer who treats people who stutter that way, should be taken to court (but not the one in Leeuwarden).

Steven de Jong is an independent writer and editor. Together with the Dutch Stuttering Support Foundation (Stichting Support Stotteren) and Start Foundation, he tested employers for stutter-friendliness. You can find more information about this at stotterverhalen.stevenschrijft.nl.

Respond? Send an email to: dejongsteven@gmail.com