Stammering in times of Corona

‘Stammering does not exist in a vacuum’

I remember being drawn to this line when editing Christopher Constantino’s chapter of Stammering Pride and Prejudice. It’s the type of sentence I tend to like: it’s short, simple but it also makes you think. I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently.

I’m not sure about you, but my life over the past couple of months has been all about the virus. Mornings spent hanging on every BBC live feed update, afternoons waiting for the 5pm press conference, and evenings reading the academic debates on Twitter.  And work, well that has been even more coronavirus: masks, handwashing, swabbing, cohorting.

I have thought about my stammer less than usual during this time. It is physically still there of course, but other events have dominated my life so it has come to the fore less frequently. The times I have found myself thinking about it, it has often been in new and different ways.

Sometimes, my stammer has come into my consciousness as it interacts with the new environment around me. I find wearing a mask difficult. They aren’t nice at the best of times, but when you’re stammering and stuck getting a word out, it feels claustrophobic. The word trapped both in your throat and the mask. Other people also lose the visual cue that you are stammering (a little like on the phone). The brief confused looks and tendency to jump in and finish my sentences have became more common.

On the other hand, my stammer coming into my consciousness has not always been negative. I’ve caught up on the phone and Skype with people who stammer. It has been great to for, however briefly, talk about stammering again and re-connect with the community. At work too, stammering has occasionally been a source of connection. I speak to a colleague who is partially deaf and lip reads to support her communication: she’s finding the masks difficult too. I feel a pang of solidarity – we’re all in this together.

The coronavirus has fundamentally altered our lives in a way in which my generation, in particular, has never experienced. We are all adjusting to a new world. For people who stammer, part of this adjusting will be related to our speech. Maybe it will be small adjustments (wearing a mask), maybe big (videoconferencing for meetings), maybe for the better (more use of online-based communication: Whatsapp and email), and maybe for the worse (no large stammering gatherings).

It has helped me to recognise that we need to allow ourselves time, space, and reflection to appreciate the new situation we find ourselves in, and the ways in which it will interact with our stammers. We need to be kind to ourselves and our speech as we all adjust to this new reality. Our stammering does not exist in a vacuum.

By Patrick Campbell