A space to reflect

It’s an interesting time for therapists working with stammering.  Not always a comfortable seat at the table when we’re considering the social model of disability with questions about what’s useful and what’s unhelpful, even harmful, in our work, and when our laziest thinking and assumptions are challenged.  The online discussion group ‘Advanced Conversations in Stammering’ hosted by Sam Simpson and Patrick Campbell (Sept 2021-Jan 2022) was a safe space for stammerers and speech therapists to respond honestly and openly together to a range of ideas and perspectives curated by Sam and Patrick.

Can’t see the wood for… (Microsoft 365 Stock image)

Fellow group member Jack Nicholas wrote elegantly and thought-provokingly about his responses to the group in June’s blog post.  Here are some of my reflections:

I loved the session with Paul Aston – the description of his project to capture the moment, and even the feeling, of stammering in paintings.  I particularly enjoyed hearing about the development process – from a starting point where the moment of stammering was for him something to be minimised and hidden from view as much as possible, to being confronted with a question “Is there beauty in stammering?”, to a weighing up of possibilities – “can there be beauty?”, “has it been captured before”, to “yes, there is”.

At the launch of The Stammering Collective website on 1st October 2022, the online discussion focused on the ‘generative’ aspects of stammering.  Paul’s re-conceptualisation and re-presentation of stammering and hearing his honest description of the process of perspective-shifting was generative for me.

Finding beauty in the grain, focusing in on the detail (Microsoft 365 Stock Image)

I was really pleased to be taken to the ‘Did I Stutter?’ website, to read some of the blogs that were posted in 2014-2018 when the site was active.  I dived straight into the posts about Speech Therapy, determined to read from a position of curiosity not defensiveness.  Some of the language and analogies were challenging for sure.  In particular, Joshua St Pierre’s writing about the politics and power dynamics of my field, the ‘industry’ of therapy and the ‘pathologisation’ of people who stammer got me thinking hard about what I do, and why, and who for.

Useful to me too, though, were the reactions of other members of the group who were baffled by the intensity of some of the ideas.  I guess it shows that the taking on of ideas about stammering therapy from a social model perspective is a process over time, and the ideas become easier to digest.  It also shows that these ideas are one perspective among many others, and while listening to them we can’t forget that others exist.

The combination of other speech and language therapists, students, researchers and people who stammer in our group was productive – especially, I think, because we were all at different points in our thinking about stammering in the context of the social model of disability.

It felt like a privilege to spend time in JJJJJerome Ellis’s company.  I had enjoyed listening to the This American Life podcast ‘Time Bandit’ Sam and Patrick had directed us to, which mulled over the time-related boundaries we’ve created for ourselves in human organisation; it included an interview with JJJJJerome talking about ‘temporal accessibility’ and ‘temporal expectations’ and who is privileged (in terms of their fluency and their race) to be given the time to speak.

In person, JJJJJerome talked about the generative “mystery” of stammering which has been painful but also interesting to him, and how stammering “demands improvisation or attunement to the moment” which then influences his creativity as a musician.  JJJJJerome’s conceptualisation of moments of stammering, the period of silence around a speech block, as ‘clearings’ fascinated me – the clearing being a generative space for possibility, a place to feel “at home in time”.

A Clearing: ‘Tree Shadows, Epping’ by Alison Chaplin – image agreed by her kind permission

There was a point in the session when JJJJJerome played his saxophone for us.  As he was about to play, some essential piece (the mouthpiece?) was missing.  On a zoom call, with an audience and inevitable time constraints, another musician might have fumbled and stressed about the passing minutes, with a sense of responsibility for our needs.  JJJJJerome appeared unconcerned – he took his time to locate the piece without apology, at home in time.  That was as beautiful, instructive and intimate as the music that followed.

Maybe our group was a version of JJJJJerome Ellis’s clearing – a space to reflect, take time, stay with ideas for longer, be uncomfortable sometimes, but in a protective environment where we could think about the generative possibilities of stammering.  Time has passed since the group finished, but its influence persists.  I’ve taken the ideas back to my team at work, and it’s helped me and my colleagues to open up and expand the ways we think about stammering, and to consider carefully our roles and responsibilities in our work.

Martha Jeffery
Highly Specialist Speech and Language Therapist at the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering, London