At AIS, we are repeatedly blown away by our clients' abilities to navigate stuttering with courage, grit and grace. Most recently, Tania Ugwu, a Digital Product manager within the Barclays UK* customer team, wrote "This is Me," to bring her 'true self to work.' We've shared this with her permission so that others contemplating sharing their true self at work know they have an ally in the game.
“Writing this short ‘This is me’ story allows me to be open about and embrace my vulnerability (not an easy thing for me) and to bring my true self to work.
My name is Tania Ugwu and I am a Digital Product Manager within the Barclays UK Customer Team. A role that requires influencing stakeholders and leading cross-functional teams to deliver new digital features. It involves lots of communication and presentations, increasingly on tele and video conferencing platforms with teams around the globe.
The age of remote meetings has ushered in a new nightmare for stammerers*. Online interaction for someone who stutters is not simply a replication of a face to face interaction. Video conferencing often means quick introductions, perhaps even sharing a joke or funny take as an appetiser to the high stakes main meal meeting. Participants engage in unintended interruptions and talking over one another. There is a pressure even faced by fluent speakers to bring their ‘A’ game to the art of on-line eloquence and display honed skills in brevity and succinct dialogue. The impact of Covid-19 and its associated challenges for those with a stammer is not realised and understood by many.
I have grown to be proud to say that I have a stammer. I did not always feel this way. As a kid, I hated it. I felt shame. I was annoyed when people asked me ‘if I forgot my name.’ I evaded speaking in certain ‘high’ stress situations. I avoided certain words to hide my stammer, in preference for ‘easier’ words and sounds. Many conversations that fluent speakers take for granted were often an exercise in a carefully crafted strategy, skillful pre-planning and chess moves for me. These conversations required a division of focus and concentration into two distinct compartments running in tandem. A part of my mind following the conversation, whilst another part would be engaged having to track the discussion. Having to keep guessing and thinking ahead about what words to avoid and what substitute options might deliver a fluent response.
Growing up as a mixed heritage black female with a stammer was not easy. However, it made me the person I am today. Driven, resilient, and hard working. I never wanted my stammer to hold me back in life (it did at times) and I wanted to prove the doubters (I had a few) wrong that I could be who I wanted to be. My lived experience has also made me hugely compassionate and caring. It is for those reasons that I can appreciate the skills and characteristics that having a ‘disability’ can often bestow.
Scientific evidence confirms that generally stammering develops during childhood. It is a neurological condition. Stammering that develops later in life, although rare, can occur due to a progressive neurological condition or a traumatic injury. It is multi-faceted issue, with physical, cognitive and emotional components that all need to be addressed.
In terms of my personal goals, I have a keen interest in fitness and wellbeing. I think a large part of my passion for sport is deeply rooted in my desire to overcome challenges and succeed.
As I write this now, I still wake up every day and face the daily demons that plagued me in childhood. Not showing up. Not speaking up. Not saying what I want to say. The fears may always be there but I am learning to accept my stammer. I appreciate the characteristics it has given me such as resilience, courage, self-reflection, empathy, a strong desire for self-improvement, and being goal driven.
I have learnt to be increasingly open about my stammer and be vulnerable with it. This is partly the reason why I am writing this article. Stammering is one of the ‘disabilities’ that is deeply misunderstood. It is often laughed about and those who suffer are sometimes mocked and openly ridiculed in front of others. Writing this short ‘This is me’ story allows me to be open about and embrace my vulnerability (not an easy thing for me) and to bring my true self to work. One of my favourite quotes is ‘Whatever makes you uncomfortable is your biggest opportunity for growth’ (Bryant McGill).
I spent an extensive number of years of attending speech therapy classes and counseling, during which I was taught the importance of slowing down my speech and the further importance of deploying breathing techniques, only to find that I couldn’t sustain these techniques in the outside world. It was my therapy with the American Institute of Stuttering that has encouraged me to work on my mindset and ‘go for it’. So showing up, speaking up and saying what I want. My therapist still encourages me to slow down but a large part of the coaching is avoidance reduction and acceptance. Ironically, the goal is not seeking fluency. The paradox is the more we chase fluency the more we struggle. We should embrace our uniqueness.
I am grateful to Barclays for allowing me this opportunity to share my story and raise awareness of stammering, a ‘disability’ that is not often talked about. I’ve also learnt that there are many things I can do to help when meeting new colleagues, such as being open, letting colleagues know that I’m having a ‘bad’ day (speech wise), ultimately bringing my true self to work.
So, what advice can I give to colleagues reading this? Please think how you might better engage with a stammer in a supportive, understanding and sensitive way. Don’t interrupt or speak over people who stammer, don’t try to guess or finish their words, maintain natural eye contact, don’t assume that we are less capable than anyone else, and check for unconscious biases. Embrace differences. With this awareness and mindset you can be part of increasing creativity and understanding in the workplace. Be an ally.”
* along with British spellings of words like realised/realized, this article discusses "stammering", which is the British word for stuttering
The American Institute for Stuttering is a leading non-profit organization whose primary mission is to provide universally affordable, state-of-the-art speech therapy to people of all ages who stutter, guidance to their families, and much-needed clinical training to speech professionals wishing to gain expertise in stuttering. Offices are located in New York, NY, Atlanta, GA, and Minneapolis, MN, and services are also available Online. Our mission extends to advancing public and scholarly understanding of this often misunderstood disorder.