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Employees with Communication Disabilities


The King's Speech - Why new film will get people talking

As new cinema release The King’s Speech puts stammering in the spotlight, speech therapist Anne Ayre, co-founder of Devon’s Talkcoach, hopes the film will promote greater understanding of those who struggle to express themselves

I HAVE spent many years as a speech and language therapist with a particular interest in stammering.

I was constantly struck by the lack of general awareness about the impact a stammer can have on an individual's life. And then along comes The King's Speech.

This film, starring Colin Firth and Helena Bonham-Carter, is tipped for Oscar success and charts the relationship between King George VI and his Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue (George Rush), as the King struggles to manage his stammer and speak to the nation.

Speaking of his role to the British Stammering Association Firth said that since he became involved with the film he was surprised by how many people had revealed to him that they, or someone they knew, had a speech impairment.

"I'm very well aware that not many films have addressed this issue except to make a mockery of it or to use it for comedy," he said.

But will the film generate greater awareness? According to Firth: "People appreciate the problem of blindness and deafness but not being able to speak properly to people, in the way they expect, I think it's underestimated – the psychological damage it does."

He also referred to the help he had from David Seidler, the screenwriter, who also has a stammer: "He was incredibly eloquent about how that feels. He referred to a drowning sensation – when you hit that terrible silence that you can't climb out of. That's something I carried with me."

How ironic it was that George VI, the reluctant king, should reign at a time when there was a revolution in mass communication. For the first time people were able to listen to their king addressing them as he spoke live to the nation. He couldn't change his job, opt for a role with less public speaking or even switch to a more tolerant organisation.

Neither was he able to pre-record and edit his broadcasts. Philip French the film critic, who also has a severe stammer, has recently written about how his family commented on the fact he stammers less when he is on the radio. He doesn't, and the evidence remains on the cutting room floor.

High-profile figures today can, with the appropriate support, manage their stammer and be successful. Rowan Atkinson, Gareth Gates and Emily Blunt are examples in the entertainment industry.

There are also high-profile individuals who stammer in the business world. The BBC's business editor, Robert Peston, often heard on Radio 4's Today programme, is a good example. In politics, Shadow Home Secretary Ed Balls has spoken publicly about his stammer, saying: "I have had a stammer all of my life but, with support and the understanding of those around you, people who stammer can become whatever they want to become – even a politician who gives speeches in front of hundreds of people."

I now have my own business, Talkcoach Ltd, helping organisations deal with issues around communication disability including stammering. Raising awareness among managers and work colleagues is at least as important as enabling an individual to manage their own stammer more easily.

About 750,000 people in the UK stammer. It often runs in families and there can be a genetic component. Research shows that stammerers' brains work differently, and although anxiety can make a stammer more severe, the cause of stammering is not psychological. About five per cent of children stammer and many of them recover with early intervention. About one per cent will still stammer as adults, with about four times as many men as women affected.

Some of Lionel Logue's techniques were undoubtedly unorthodox. You will be amazed at the things he has the King doing in the film – all based on the notes that Logue made at the time. Swearing, although it may reduce inhibitions and lower anxiety, is perhaps not a technique we would advocate today – the film nearly got a 15 rating because of this scene. However, focusing on gaining confidence is often a key element of our work.

Most of what Talkcoach does is designed specifically for each organisation though we run open courses in partnership with Skern Lodge, at Appledore in North Devon. They focus on management and leadership development while we work alongside them focusing on strategies to manage stammering more effectively, to speak more confidently and effectively.

I have worked with individuals who stammer for some 20 years, and each stammer is as different as a fingerprint.

Many people who stammer find using the telephone particularly challenging. Last year we trained Devon and Cornwall Police call handlers to recognise callers with communication difficulties, including stammering, and to deal confidently and effectively with them.

Do go and see the film if you haven't already. It's a great movie and a wider understanding of the issues around stammering will help the many individuals who stammer.

Enhanced performance through effective and confident speaking in the workplace: our innovative programme for individuals who stammer.