By Abed Ahmed

You probably know a lot about autism, but what about stammering? Both affect 1% of the world. 80 million people.

Stop and think. How many students are currently in your school? Up to 8% of them will stammer at some point in their life, but, this will remain as a lifelong condition for 1%. There are almost 9 million children in UK schools which means almost 720,000 children need your support. 90,000 will go onto to live with their stammer for the rest of their lives. This article isn’t for 1% of people who stammer, but for 99% of you that do not.

My name Is Abed Ahmed. I knew I wanted to become a teacher from the age of 15 but I feared my stammer would prevent me from achieving my dream. An advisor who was also teacher, even told me I should consider a different career because children might not understand me when I talk. I now know he was wrong. I’m currently in my 5th year of teaching, leading a maths department in an inner-city school in Birmingham through Covid-19.

My parents told me that I’ve been stammering since the age of 4, which is common for many people who stammer as that is when you tend to learn to speak. However, some develop it in the latter stages of their lives too. My stammer has given me many obstacles to overcome. Throughout my education, I was constantly imitated, the highest level of humiliation. As a result, I refused to put my hands up in lessons or talk much in social settings.

By the time I got to secondary school, I knew I had to adapt with with my stammer and not work against it. I knew I had so much to give and it was killing me inside that I was preventing my real self to come out. To get out of my shell, I did things I didn’t enjoy, like volunteering to present first in presentations and choosing to study GCSE drama (which I disliked to begin with, but absolutely loved when I completed it). Doing these things didn’t stop me from stammering, but at least I stammered with confidence.

Once I completed my degree at university, I applied to do my teacher training course. I didn’t get into the first place I was interviewed for. Ten minutes after I left the interview, I received a ping on my phone to say I had been rejected. I was told I didn’t have enough experience. That hit me hard and I blamed my stammer. I’ve always blamed it for all my rejections in life. I went home and cried which was out of the ordinary for me, I didn’t realise just how much this meant for me. It was years of frustration of thinking you’re not good enough because of the fact you cannot speak fluently, like others. This was something I’ve been planning and preparing since I was 16, I’d wanted it for so long.

However, I persevered and finally got a place at my local secondary school in partnership with Birmingham City University. My mentors and university lecturers were incredibly supportive: they taught us how to teach and exposed us to many papers and up-to-date research. The school I trained in made me feel as if my stammer didn’t exist and thankfully, they offered me a full time job.

Since becoming a teacher, I’ve vowed to always tell my students at the beginning of academic year about my stammer. I also tell them that it’s not going to stop me from being a good teacher and it won’t stop them from learning. All I ask of them is patience and understanding.

On the rare occasion, a child once imitated me. The entire class turned on the child and said “Why are you taking the mick out of Sir? He’s teaching us, show him some respect.”, I was speechless and moved.

I also feel proud that I can help others who stammer and to help teachers to support those who stammer. Those students shouldn’t go through their entire education with no support (it happened to me), so I decided to create my own stammer support sessions in all the schools I’ve worked in. My last school had 17 students who stammered. My sessions consist of confidence building activities, theatrical role play, interview practice and life lessons. I hope I act as a general supporting figure to give students a voice and empathise with their struggles.

So, as a teacher with a stammer, what do I advise other teachers to do to support their students with a stammer?

1. As a general rule, treat a student with a stammer the same way as you treat others, no one likes to be treated differently.

2. Never finish their sentences. You shouldn’t be finishing anyone’s! Always listen to what they have to say, not how they are saying it.

3. Please refrain from advising us on what to do, such as “take your time, slow down, breathe” as that makes us feel stupid. Only a speech and language therapist can tell us that.

4. Keep natural eye contact at all times.

What reasonable adjustments can you make as a school?

IssueSuggested Strategy
Fear of being heard stammering makes me anxious to answer my name during the register.Being able to raise my hand instead or teacher acknowledging that I am here before register is taken. Or allowing me to say something simple e.g. “yes” or a word of my choice.
Taking part in group work makes me feel anxious due to fear of others laughing at my stammer.Allowing me to work with friends or people I am comfortable with. Also, ensuring that there’s someone in the group who makes sure everyone has something to say.
Doing a group presentation to the classIt would help if one person introduced everyone’s name (as I may struggle to say my name). Also, allowing me extra time will help me feel less anxious about running out of time as it takes me longer to speak.
Doing a single presentation to the classAllowing me to just write my name on the introduction slide rather than verbally introducing myself. Furthermore, allowing me to present to just the teacher will help with anxiety.   Extra time to compensate for the time lost when stammering.   If questions are asked, allowing me some time to think about my answer before answering will help.
Taking part in icebreaker activities especially at the beginning of the new academic year.Allowing all students to take part in icebreakers without talking. For example, by giving students a post-it note instead, to write down information about themselves. The teacher can then read it out without having the students to stand up and introduce themselves. This can also be done through the use of mini whiteboards.
Being chosen to answer a question on the spot.Being asked questions on the spot by teachers can be daunting, especially when I don’t know the answer. It would be better if teachers stopped doing this when there are students present who stammer. Another option would be if all students were given mini whiteboards to write down their answers.  

I hope these ideas will help you to create a safe environment for children and colleagues who stammer.

Please visit www.stamma.org for more information.

I also run my own stammer support group online for all young people 8-16 (free). Please email me on [email protected] for more information.

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