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Worker who stutters wants promotion to job that requires public speaking: Now what?

by on
in Leaders & Managers,People Management

The problem: A stellar employee seeks a promotion to a job that demands a fair amount of speaking in front of groups large and small. The trouble is, she stutters. Your first thought: This will not work out. What do you tell her?

The case:

No one in the department was faster or more accurate than Irene when it came to flying fingers on a key­­board. But she also knew a lot more about computers than just the keyboard. When other typists developed problems, they usually found the answer with Irene’s help.

Irene was thrilled when her boss was promoted. She had more seniority than anyone else in the department, so she thought that her boss’s job would be hers. Then, Irene’s boss called her into the office and told her the new manager would be transferring in from another department.

Irene started to speak but, as was usu­ally the case when she was nervous or upset, began to stutter. When the manager finally understood what Irene was trying to say, she reacted sympathetically. “I know you have the technical skills to do the job,” she said. “But what about the communica­tion skills?”

“I, I, I don’t have pro, pro, problems talking with other typists. You, you know I he-he-help them whenever you’re not around.”

“The typists know you and they’re aware of your stuttering problem,” the manager said. “But in my job, you would have to deal with other programmers, department heads, and, sometimes, cus­tomers. We simply wouldn’t be doing you a favor by promoting you into a job you couldn’t handle.”

The answer:

If Irene decided to file an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) lawsuit, it’s doubtful the company would be able to prove the disability would prevent her from performing the job. If the position had been for a telephone operator or a news anchor, a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ) might exist. But prevent­ing a person from advancement because of a stuttering problem is part of what the ADA is designed to change.

“Reasonable accommodation” means more than widening aisles or installing spe­cial equipment. A little patience in dealing with a person with a disability certainly qualifies as a form of accommodation. It’s not just a question of law, but of practical­ity. It makes good sense for companies to advance employees like Irene.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Branden January 20, 2012 at 3:29 am

Paul my name is Branden and I am a PWS and successfully employed by one of the largest metropolitan police departments in Georgia. Prior to this I was a non-commissioned officer in the US Navy. If one agency doesn’t take you there are plenty more that will. Strenthen your strong points and emphasize how you are improving your not so strong points.

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Curious Reader January 9, 2012 at 4:54 pm

I’m genuinely curious about this – If someone is a stutterer, and wants to be promoted, such as in the situation above, can the company force that person to seek treatment for their stutter/speech impediment? (Perhaps more relevant in an impediment – not an expert on stuttering, but I believe there is some sort of speech pathology counseling available maybe?)

Assuming it’s on company time/company paid for it?

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John January 7, 2012 at 3:55 pm

@Bryan

Actually, it’s a fundamental fact about the disorder and has even been used to argue court cases successfully and is accepted by the medical community. When asking people with the condition if nervousness increases stuttering the responses are mixed and the answer is usually a variation of, “When I’m nervous about not being able to speak normally I tend to stutter uncontrollably. When I’m nervous for other reasons there isn’t an effect.”

The relationship comes from people without the condition thinking about times they’ve stuttered and assumed that the people with the condition are experiencing the same emotions, but really it’s neurological (ie emotions like nervousness does not cause stuttering).

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James A. McClure January 7, 2012 at 1:46 pm

Employers should be aware that stuttering is not caused by nervousness but is usually physiological in origin (our brains process speech less efficiently). Promotion to management can be a catalyst that prompts a person who stutters to seek professional help.

A smart employer can benefit by encouraging a person who stutter to seek specialized speech therapy and join a support group such as those sponsored by the National Stuttering Association. Nothing will cure stuttering, but therapy and support can build self-confidence and communications skill.

I have met people who stutter who have succeeded in virtually every occupation imaginable.

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Bryan Scott Herr January 7, 2012 at 1:20 pm

John,
The primary place that the relationship is created from, in my opinion, is from People Who Stutter themselves. I am a Person Who Stutters and in my case, my stuttering does get worse when I a nervous. I believe this because I tend to tense up the most around my shoulders and neck area, which most likely effects my stuttering.
I would like you to explain how you believe “There isn’t a very strong relationship between nervousness or being upset and an increase in stuttering.” I would greatly appreciate your insite.

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Carol Buckingham January 6, 2012 at 7:56 pm

I have stuttered all my life and had a job with EPA where I worked with regional people and people outside of the country and I got promoted to a GS13 because I could get my point across even though I stuttered. This job had a lot of talking to international folks and most of them had no problem understanding what I was telling them; had to talk to the contracter about any problems with our computer system – no problem there either.

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John January 6, 2012 at 7:37 pm

There isn’t a very strong relationship between nervousness or being upset and an increase in stuttering. There was actually a case in Ohio where a man applying for a firefighter position was not hired because they incorrectly believed when he was nervous or under pressure stuttering would increase. Needless to say, they lost the case and this person is a fireman. You’ve made a fundamental mistake on etiology of the disorder you’re discussing and you’ve perpetuated one of the most detrimental myths about stuttering.

Communication skills means a variety of things, not necessarily fluent verbal expression. This person has a track record of helping other typists solve problems, maybe that means she would also be the most qualified person to talk the other people too. It’s really disgusting to think that people need specialized training to talk to someone that stutters or “a little patience.”

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Paul January 6, 2012 at 2:05 pm

I stutter and I was told by a Police recruitment officer that I wouldn’t qualify.

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