You may remember Leys Gedde's recent post about discrimination he experienced because of stammering, on Stuttering Hub. Leys and the British Stammering Association have been doing some work since and have have recently submitted a statement to the Speaker's Conference - which has been set up by the Speaker of the House of Commons to make sure that women, ethnic minorities and people with disability are being included in the political process. Below is the statement in full - it is extremely informative and well worth a read:
1. Summary of statement
1.1 Stammering affects around 750,000 children and adults in the UK. Amongst adults, four times more men than women stammer.
1.2 Stammering is now known to be a neurodevelopmental disorder involving many different brain systems which are active during speaking. It emerges in childhood as a symptom that the brain's neural circuits for speech are not being wired normally. There is no evidence of a universal cure - but therapy, as close to onset as possible, has a very high success rate in young children in terms of enabling them to revert to normally fluent speech.
1.3 As a population, people who stammer do not differ from the fluent population in terms of the range of intelligence, anxiety traits, nervousness etc.
1.4 People who stammer struggle to speak, which frustrates them and invariably exposes them to negative reactions from others - latest research has shown that even 3-year olds who stammer experience numerous negative reactions.
1.5 Many people who stammer are reluctant to speak, especially in public, and even if they are not, they tend not to be welcomed as speakers in any public forums, and particularly not by the audio-visual media. Thus there is little awareness of stammering, its cause and effects on life.
1.6 No Member of Parliament stammers audibly.
1.7 No high-profile leader in business or any other career stammers audibly.
1.8 Stammering hardly ever features in the broadcast media - unless as a dramatic device, often for comic intent, or to denote psychotic tendencies.
1.9 As a result, people who stammer have virtually no public voice, literally.
1.10 There is a grave risk that those with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) are confronted by far more barriers to democratic expression than the mobility disabled.
1.11 Steps need to be taken, from local government upwards, to remove barriers and encourage participation by people with SLCN.
2. Are problems caused by the unbalanced representation in the House of Commons of different groups in society?
Some problems are certainly caused by the unbalanced representation in the House of Commons. But whilst representation in the House is the direct concern of this Conference, representation in the eyes of the public is another matter, and the media plays a vital part in that wider perception of how representation is interpreted. So whilst having the appropriate number of women, ethnic minority and disabled MPs is desirable in terms of pure representation, their individual voices may be weighted differently within the House and outside the House.
3. If so, what are those problems?
3.1 In terms of representation, no MP stammers audibly - although we believe that Ed Balls has personal experience of stammering.
3.2 Unless an MP stammers, it is unlikely that he or she will empathise with the struggle, frustrations and prejudices people who stammer face in every day life. However, simply having an awareness that people with SLCN exist is very useful because, to most, it is a hidden disability.
3.3 John Bercow, who led the recent review of speech services for children, has a child with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN). Thus he has a personal interest in SLCN and, as a result of the Bercow Review, now has a very good understanding of the implications of living with SLCN.
3.4 As around 1% of the UK population stammer (the proportion is the same throughout the world) there should in theory be 6 or 7 MPs who stammer.
3.5 If there were just one MP who had an audible stammer, it would make a big difference to how the condition and people who stammer are perceived by MPs, the political parties, the Government and the public. This hypothetical MP would not have to talk about stammering: being there, and getting on with job, would be enough.
3.6 We believe that one UK MEP and a number of local councillors stammer.
4. Is there a relationship between these levels of representation and voter attitudes to Parliament?
Not as far as people who stammer are concerned because, in recent years, there has not been an MP who stammers significantly or even audibly.
5. What are the reasons why more women, people from ethnic minorities and disabled people do not become members of Parliament?
5.1 Public speaking is seen to be a vital part of an MP's job. Most people who stammer tend to believe that they could not do this effectively, and some actually fear it, so they are not likely to seek candidature.
5.2 If a person who stammers was to become an MP, and had a marked stammer, it might be stressful and, at least initially, he or she might become a focus for all those with SLCN. This would be good for SLCN, but possibly it might be difficult for the MP to find the time necessary to pursue broader issues and satisfying the non speech-related concerns of constituents and colleagues.
5.3 However, assuming a person who stammers wished to become a candidate, but a political party was reluctant to support the candidature, then this is a problem which could be addressed through the DDA.
6. What are the problems and practical difficulties encountered at any point in the process of selection and election by members of these underrepresented groups who are looking to become MPs?
6.1 As far as people who stammer are concerned, the main practical difficulty would be the perception that they are not being able to speak effectively and to appear to be authoritative - in public, which is necessary before, during and after the selection and election of an MP.
6.2 However, many people who stammer are effective and enthusiastic communicators, despite their inability to speak fluently. Nevertheless, we know that society tends to have lower opinions of people who stammer, so we are not hopeful about the likelihood of a stammering candidate being selected by and for a constituency.
7. What actions could be taken by the Government to address disparities in representation?
7.1 Generally, the Government needs to encourage greater awareness of those with SLCN: at the moment, they are virtually invisible and inaudible in society. In contrast, most of those with a mobility disability have no difficulty in expressing their views - and there are now very few barriers to their gaining access to public facilities and meetings. This is largely as a result of long term public education, reinforced by legislation such as the DDA.
7.2 It is also possible that the commercial opportunities available to third parties in providing assistance for people with most disabilities (e.g. wheelchairs, ramps, hearing devices, glasses) are widespread and this helps drive their provision. But there are few commercial opportunities for third parties to provide material assistance for people with SLCN.
7.3 In terms of local democracy, a 'speech friendly' policy for those with SLCN needs to be put in place. A recent experience has demonstrated that many, and possibly all, councils have no such policy even though the Disability Discrimination Act clearly says that service providers must not treat a person less favourably for a reason related to his or her disability and have a duty to make reasonable adjustments. Further, the Disability Equality Duty requires organisations across the public sector to be proactive in promoting disability equality. Disability - including SLCN - should be 'mainstreamed' and disabled people and disability equality should be taken into account from the outset.
7.4 In terms of representation in the House, a motion should be tabled explaining the difficulties faced by those with SLCN and making it clear that the Speaker, political parties and individual MPs welcome new Members with SLCN.
8. What actions have been, or could be, taken by political parties, campaigning groups and others to address disparities in representation?
None, as far as we are aware, in England and Wales; but the Communication Forum Scotland is addressing this issue with funding from the Scottish Government.
9. What actions have been taken elsewhere in the UK and overseas, and by whom, to address similar concerns?
None, as far as we are aware, related to disparities in representation. However, in 2005 a declaration was put before the European Parliament which was designed to raise public awareness of stammering, reduce negative stereotypes and discrimination, and recognise that stammering can be a disability.
10. How can the success of such actions be measured?
The success of the actions proposed in this statement could only be judged fairly by market research amongst all those involved.
British Stammering Association, 29th April, 2009
A very powerful statement. What is a concerning however, is the lack of awareness and understanding of stammering at the highest levels of the land. It is obvious there is still much work to be done.
Stuttering Hub, 2nd May 2009