Joe Biden, Samuel L Jackson, Ed Sheeran, Marilyn Monroe, Charles Darwin, Winston Churchill and the North East’s own Rowan Atkinson might not seem to have all that much in common, but at different points during their lives, all of them spoke with a stammer.
According to the British Stammering Association, around three per cent of the UK’s adult population has a stammer, with around eight per cent of children stammering at some point, albeit often only temporarily.
International Stuttering Awareness Day, which takes place on 22 October, aims to raise public awareness of stammering, build self-esteem among people who stammer and show how everyone can best support anyone in their personal or working lives who has a stammer.
Stammering most commonly starts in early childhood, usually between the ages of two and five. The cause is not yet known and there’s also no known cure, although there are several speech therapies and courses available which people who stammer can access to help them understand and manage it better.
And for one North East solicitor, choosing to take one of these courses has played a crucial role in enabling him to fulfil career ambitions which might otherwise have stayed out of reach.
Adam Chaffer, Associate In Hay & Kilners Dispute Resolution Team, as well as a Director of and Company Secretary to destination management organisation, Visit Northumberland, the Northumberland National Park Authority’s Independent Person for Standards and a visiting lecturer at the University of Law.
Adam began to stammer around the age of five. His condition worsened when he was 11 years old, and while he had repeated speech therapy to try to address it, success was only short term.
He says: “Unless you’re in that situation, you don’t realise how hard and humiliating it is not to be able to express yourself because of a stammer - for the best part of 20 years, I struggled with basic sentences and sometimes even with my own name.“
By sixth form, Adam had become interested in working in the legal profession but recognised that his stammer would be a barrier to achieving this ambition, so in his early twenties, he decided to investigate how he might find a way to work around it.
He came across the McGuire Programme, an intensive three-day course which aims to provide people with the tools and support to go beyond their stammer and live their lives to the fullest.
The programme takes a holistic approach to stammering, addressing both the physical and psychological aspects, and is run by people who have stammered and who have been through the programme themselves. The focus is on practical, real-life communication skills to allow the participants to thrive in the real world.
Long-term community support is also available after the course, with a personal coach working with students for up to 18 months to help them carry on with their post-course exercises and achieve their speaking goals.
Adam continues: “I was sceptical at first as I’d previously tried various speech therapy options without great success, but the impact that the McGuire Programme was both significant and long-lasting.
“The approach the course took was very different to anything I’d tried before with a focus on physical and mental strategies to overcome stammering and incorporating a sports mentality, where the end goal is to become good at the ‘sport of speaking’.
“By the end of the programme, I knew I had the confidence I needed to be able to speak publicly and achieve the career goals I’d set myself.“
Adam completed his professional qualifications at Northumbria University, where he received support from the University’s Law School, then led by Professor Kevin Kerrigan, in continuing to develop his confidence in speaking, and co-founded the university’s debating society to provide more opportunities for public speaking for himself and his peers.
In practice, Adam regularly advises and represents clients in court within his specialisms of construction and commercial litigation. He was recently recognised in legal industry bible The Legal 500 as a key lawyer in Hay & Kilner’s construction team in 2023 and recently made a successful first appearance before the Technology & Construction Court of the High Court.
Adam concludes: “A stammer shouldn’t prevent anyone from following their desired career path, and it’s important to get help and advice from people within that industry about what they think you need to do to put yourself in the best position to do so.
“Everyone has their own unique way of talking, and those who stammer will do so in their own unique way, but there is no one size fits all solution for stammerers to access, there are options available.
“But if you’re willing to try different things, and to be persistent and disciplined in working at the techniques that can help you manage a stammer, you could get to take up opportunities which might otherwise be difficult to access.
“My stammer will always be part of me, but I now treat it as an ally. It makes me think about what I’m saying and how I’m saying it, which can often be beneficial in making me reflect and choose the right words to say in the right way, especially in court where the points I am putting forward are becoming increasingly complex, both factually and legally.
“All the hard work that I’ve put in has given me the foundations that I needed to get where I am today, and I’m proud of the progress that I’ve made.”