Whether we agree with them or not, it is always the loudest voices that get the most attention. We see it politically with MPs jeering from the House of Commons benches. Imagine if an MP couldn’t open their mouth to get past the M in ‘Mister Speaker’. Would we, their constituents, view their televised performance with pity? With embarrassment? How about frustration that they were not fulfilling their role?
I’m Jazz, and I have a neurogenic stammer caused by surviving a stroke at the age of thirteen and having had to relearn to open my mouth and produce vocal sound again. The stroke also meant that I lost a lot of muscle tone, which caused flaccid dysarthria, something that I’m still stuck with despite having relearnt most other things- walking, for instance. I can’t say my full name- Jasmine Moreton- fluently because I usually prolongate ‘M’ sounds, but I’ve always been known as Jazz and I roll with the punches. BBC’s Felicity Baker made an entire TV film stemming from the fact that she can’t say her name, and that’s when I realised that it’s a notable trait.
Felicity’s film, I Can’t Say My Name: Stammering in the Spotlight, sticks in my mind because I hadn’t heard a disfluent voice in a position of authority in the media until that point. Hearing stammering on the BBC made me feel hopeful that society might be changing to be more accepting of stammering. Unfortunately, this hasn’t happened yet: generally, disfluency’s media portrayal exists in comedy, or to represent somebody extremely vulnerable or that has a Learning Disability, often as a news item. The other media trope is that of the stammerer whose life is terrible until they finally become fluent, which resolves all their issues (here’s looking at you, The King’s Speech). This is unhelpful because it firstly gives the illusion that if a stammerer just tries a bit harder, they too could find fluency. Secondly, it implies that stammering is the stammerer’s biggest problem, when it may well be the tip of the iceberg of- in my case- neurological damage or multiple disabilities: an audible disability that just means that I need time to talk, whereas the complexity of the human brain means that I have multiple other disabilities that often go unnoticed because many people switch off as soon as they hear my voice.
We stammerers seem to be the last taboo on the radio, despite King George VI’s best media efforts between 1925 and 1952. I used to assume that this is because the audience can’t see us, can’t read our lips, and don’t therefore know that we are normal people with jobs and families and lives outside of disability but, since being commissioned as a BBC New Creative during lockdown, I have learnt that the media is fearful of dead air- gaps in broadcast that interrupt programming- because the audience might walk away or change channel.
Stammering charity, STAMMA (the British Stammering Association) are currently campaigning to see and hear more people that stammer on television and radio, in roles that aren’t simply focussed on stammering. #NoDiversityWithoutDisfluency is, in my opinion, a really important campaign because up to 3% of adults (and up to 5% of children) stammer, yet we are rarely represented in the media. I say rarely because I currently have an audio piece commissioned by Rural Media on BBC Sounds: Discordance, an autobiographical drama. I propose that, if stammering was normalised in the media, and stammering voices were heard in people’s everyday lives, wider society would become more understanding and inclusive, and people that stammer would hear things like “Oh, you don’t understand what I’m saying to you, poor thing” far less frequently.
I would like to propose that we embrace disfluent speech in broadcast media for the following reasons.
Firstly, Speech and language are two entirely separate things, enabled by different areas of the brain. People with disfluent speech can, therefore, be both incredibly insightful people and fantastic linguists- especially since we spend so much energy on finding ways to avoid words that are harder to say!
Secondly, the media has an incredible amount of power with regards to the issues and voices that the public is exposed to and could therefore help to normalise disfluent speech rather than literally marginalising certain voices.
And finally it’s notable that people- including, in fact, certain politicians- with less intelligent things to say than I, are given airtime in situations where disfluent voices are not. Perhaps if people like me were listened to, society might become more inclusive.
I for one am proud of my disfluent voice and diverse speech. Although my stammer and dysarthria are hidden until I start to speak, excluding voices like mine from the media due to our disfluency is still disability discrimination. We can all help to change this through welcoming ‘disabled voices’ to the airwaves and all of society.
About the Author
Jazz Moreton is an interdisciplinary artist who has multiple disabilities as a result of surviving a stroke as a teenager, and a passion for activism and equality. She strives to use her enthusiasm for the Arts to create work that has the power to ignite action and discourse around the many inequalities that people with disabilities endure on a daily basis. Since graduating with First Class Honours in Fine Art from the University of Gloucestershire in 2017, she has worked in audio, performance, and traditional visual arts, and has exhibited and performed in Coventry, Brighton, and London. Jazz is passionate about using her experiences as a person with multiple disabilities, along with her creative ability and drive for genuine equality, to create positive social change through art and the arts. Are you going to try to stop her?
Jazz is part of our sounddelivery media Spokesperson Network. https://www.sounddelivery.org.uk/spokesperson-network/ #SDMNetwork