MSc Neuroimaging for Clinical and Cognitive Neuroscience student and BSc Speech and Language Therapy graduate Richard Stephens has been on a life long journey trying to figure out how to live with his stammer. However, through therapy and life changing moments, Richard found the answer and now seeks to pass that message on to others. In a passionate and inspirational piece, Richard explains the difficulties he had growing up and how he plans to help those who find themselves in a similar position…
For as long as I can remember, I have been a person who stammers. During my early childhood, teenage years, and young adult life, speaking in any social situation (especially in front of people I did not know), saying my name, speaking on the phone, and presenting at school or at work, were all painful experiences.
I was riddled with the constant fear and anxiety of exposing myself as a person who stammers. I experienced numerous experiences of negativity towards my stammer, from a wide range of people, including being laughed at, ridiculed, ignored and spoken over simply because it took me longer to say the words I wanted to say. I saw the world as impatient and non-accepting of me, leading to a life as a covert stammer – someone who hides the fact that they stammer at all costs. My relationship with my stammer was at an all time low. The most painful aspect, however, was the feeling of living as if I was an impostor and not being able to follow the path in life that I had always dreamed of.
Since the age of 11, my dream had always been to be a speech and language therapist, to help other children and adults who stammer. This dream stemmed from the therapy I received, specifically my experiences with my therapist who also stammered. He was the only other person I knew who stammered and the majority of our sessions would be spent discussing his experiences, gaining a better understanding of the causes and effects of stammering, ways to reduce anxiety in social situations, and learning to be more confident in using my voice. My therapist helped to show me that having a stammer was not the problem, it was how it was embraced and that a positive relationship with it would help to lead to life of acceptance within.
Due to funding issues, my therapy stopped, and with no further support and contact with another person who stammered, my improvements quickly faded. This lead to many years of covert stammering, which consumed the next decade and a half.
The most pivotal moment in my life came during a job interview when I was 32 years old. I had to give a presentation, and I stammered throughout, leaving the interview angry and upset. On leaving the interview, on the drive home, I knew that it was time to fully address my stammer. I could no longer go on living a life that was not my own. As soon as I returned home I contacted the Manchester British Stammering Support Group. The first meeting I attended was incredible. It was the first time, since I was 16 years old, that I had met anyone else who stammered. One of the members of the group was an SLT and researcher who stammered. We became great friends and spent many hours talking about our own journeys. The support I received from the group to follow my dream was life changing.
Time to take action
I applied and was accepted onto the BSc Speech and Language Therapy course at Manchester and ever since day one on the course, my journey has gone from strength to strength. During the summer periods off, I became involved, and still am to do this day, with a non-profit organisation in America called the Stuttering Association for the Young (SAY). I am part of their counselling and leadership staff at their annual summer camp , Camp SAY, for children who stammer. From not knowing anybody else who stammered, I am now fully involved in a huge stammering community, and have made many fiends, through SAY, in the stammering research field in America. As a result, halfway through the BSc program I decided to pursue a career in research to study the causes and maintenance of stammering, and at every stage in this process the program course leads and lecturers at the University of Manchester have supported me unconditionally. After graduating with first class honours in speech and language therapy, I am currently studying an MSc in Neuroimaging for Clinical and Cognitive Neuroscience at UoM, with the aim to continue my research interests at the PhD level at Vanderbilt University in America.
My experiences, opportunities, and current journey in life has far exceeded my dreams. As a child and young adult, I feared my future and I feared my stammer. Now, my future is full of fantastic opportunities with dreams being turned into reality, and all due to fully embracing my identity as a person who stammers. My advice for anyone wishing to pursue his or her dreams is simple. The only barriers that stop our dreams from becoming a reality are the ones we place there ourselves. The journey may be a struggle at times, but it is one well worth enduing. As Walt Disney famously said, “All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.”