Legend of the stammering community Norbert Lieckfeldt, former Chief Executive of the British Stammering Association (now Stamma), gives us an update on what he is up to now
It struck me when I handed in my notice that for more than 20 years I’d lived a charmed life,
professionally speaking – a life where I was almost expected to stammer, for the greater good as it were.
Starting working in May 2018 for the East London NHS Foundation Trust (ELFT) with nearly 6,000 staff, there was essentially no knowledge of stammering in my workplace. None. Nada. Zilch. It started with the fact that, while many people knew I’d managed a charity before, and a few knew it was the British Stammering Association, many people didn’t know I had a stammer as these days it’s actually quite mild and not very noticeable. So the first step was to get over that hurdle, to stop in telephone calls and meetings and deliberately say something like “I always stammer on that word”, just to alert people that what they may or may not hear is stammering (and to stop myself from hiding, to be honest). But very soon I felt it is important to raise the issue of stammering more widely, at an employer level rather than personally. As luck would have it, the Trust had started a Respect and Dignity at Work campaign and as a result had reinvigorated its staff networks, including the unfortunately named Disabled Staff Network.
I decided to sign up for the newsletter and then started to attend the meetings – if there’s one thing I have learnt working for a charity with an unpopular cause is you cannot change things if you don’t turn up to the meetings. But if you do, you may be one of only a few and you can really make a difference!
I think it’d be fair to say that before I started attending the meetings, the Network had never really thought about communication disabilities in general, and certainly not about stammering in particular. I soon set out to change that.
But first, the network’s name! I shamelessly plagiarized from a previous discussion at EY (Ernst & Young) and proposed to rename our Network into ELFTAbility; this was accepted because as a Network we felt it was important to focus on the wider abilities as well as the special skills people with disabilities bring to the workplace.
When we were thinking about a small scale launch event for the new Network, we were looking for a guest speaker who’d do it for a nominal fee (ie a bottle of whiskey that had to be handed over outside NHS premises) so who better to pick than the Defence Stammering Network stalwart Walter Scott – he blatantly raised awareness about stammering whilst hiding it under the banner of “The challenge of creating an effective disability network in the Armed Forces”.
When we were planning our trust wide ELFTAbility conference I could make sure that Patrick
Campbell, one of the editors of Stammering Pride and Prejudice, would offer a workshop on the social model of disability (using stammering and Stammering Pride as an example), sharing the word, raising awareness. And finally – again plagiarising from an Employers Stammering Network campaign – ELFTAbility wanted to run a See the Ability campaign and I stepped MILES outside my comfort zone to be photographed as the poster boy for stammering, just as other colleagues stepped up and shared their own form of (often hidden) disabilities within the Trust.
Most recently I have joined Iain Wilkie and my former colleague Helen Carpenter as trustee of 50 Million Voices to carry on the work of the now-defunct Employers Stammering Network on an international scale.
My learning? Well, if you see any good ideas elsewhere for raising awareness of stammering, don’t be afraid to copy them – imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And if you don’t show up, nobody will listen to you. Showing up and speaking out means you can have far more influence than perhaps colleagues much higher up in the hierarchy than you are. If your employer runs a staff network for disabled staff, join it, go along to the meetings and don’t be afraid to talk about stammering. You’ll blow their mind because they haven’t got a clue!
Many thanks to Norbert Lieckfeldt for contributing to our blog. If you’d like to read more stories and opinions from people who stammer – check out Our Network.