People who stammer should be allowed to speak if they wish to, but services can be made more accessible through providing alternative ways of communication where the person perfers to use those. This page aims to give guidance to businesses and other service providers on this area. For a summary on accessibility for customers who stammer, see Making services accessible.
My Telephone page brings together Equality Act issues to do with the phone.
A person who stammers may be reluctant to take on a speaking situation because of difficulty speaking in it. But stammering is not simply a condition affecting speech. It often also affects the person’s attitudes to speech, with negative emotions such as fear, shame and embarassment leading to the person seeking to hide their stammer. For example, the person may substitute words they cannot say, keep speech to a minimum, and avoid challenging speaking situations. This may all be going on while their speech sounds reasonably fluent.
Speech therapy will tend to encourage a person who stammers to reduce avoidance. However, service providers are not speech and language therapists. Service providers considering requiring a person to speak in order to access their services – and indeed courts considering the legal position – must bear in mind that stammering is not just the physical difficulty of speaking, but often also a complex of negative emotions which may make a speaking situation even more difficult, and perhaps impossible.
People who stammer differ greatly. Some will have no problem talking to a member of staff, or making a phone call. Others tend to avoid speaking situations, and there is a broad spectrum inbetween.
The same presumably applies to many people with other disabilities affecting their speech. Also some “non-disabled” people prefer to avoid speaking up. Giving practical alternatives to speech therefore broadens the accessibility of goods and services for various sections of the public.
Even where a non-speaking alternative is available, a person who stammers may choose to use the speaking alternative and should generally be heard, even if it takes longer. (See
The points below are just a few examples. Any organisation needs to look at its individual situation to see where people need to speak and what alternatives might be available.
Alternatives to the telephone
Many people who stammer find the phone particularly difficult, more so than speaking face-to-face. There is a separate page on phone calls with people who stammer. However, many who stammer may simply avoid phone calls so far as possible. Some will simply not access a service, or information, if all they have is a phone number. Quite a few more will think twice before doing so.
Do not say something can only be done by phone
A bank insisted on sorting out an issue by phone despite a person’s stammer. Particularly where an issue is complicated, or there is a lot of information to be communicated, a phone call may be a very daunting prospect. It may be simply impracticable. (See an example (consumeractiongroup.co.uk)).
Accordingly, a service provider may well be required, by way of reasonable adjustment, to allow alternative means of communicating. These could include a secure online message facility, a face-to-face conversation, or email or post.
Legally it may be difficult to escape an obligation to offer alternatives by saying the person can just get a friend or family member to phone for them. People have a right to respect of their private and family life under Article 8 European Convention of Human Rights, and UK courts have to take this into account when applying the Equality Act. See LH Bishop v HMRC discussed on Human rights and provision of services>Offering an alternative to the telephone. Also in Enver Şahin v Turkey, discussed at the same link, the European Court of Human Rights emphasised the importance of personal autonomy in deciding what is a reasonable adjustment.
One of the ‘top tips’ in an Ofcom document on call centres is: “Offer customers the choice of contacting your business by post or email as well as phone”. See Disabled customers and call centres (ofcom.org.uk).
A possible alternative in some cases is to allow the person who stammers to set out the problem/information in a letter or email, and then have a phone call to discuss it. This allows for some discussion while not requiring the person to get over a lot of information through speech.
Internet and post
Many people who stammer love email, online messaging, and the internet (if they have it), since they don’t have to speak. Accordingly, e-commerce and emails or online chat services can be an attractive alternative.
It can be particularly important for people who stammer that emails are responded to (which does not always happen), as some will be unwilling or reluctant to phone to chase up an unanswered query.
On websites, it is helpful to include information which customers would otherwise need to phone in for, such as shop opening times.
Post is a possible alternative. Wherever practicable it is a good idea to include a postal address in advertisements or other literature, as well as a phone number.
It is now possible to text the emergency services, though one should register one’s mobile phone in advance: www.emergencysms.net.
Some people who stammer dread asking for tickets, particularly as standing in the queue allows time for anxiety to build up. So automated ticket machines can be useful, as can other automated sales devices.
A person who stammers may avoid asking if they cannot find what they are looking for, e.g. particular items in a shop, or a particular book in a library. Clear signage therefore helps – including for the toilets!
Having to speak into an entry phone to get through a door, or speaking into a microphone at the entrance/exit of a car park, is very daunting for some people who stammer. Consider possible alternatives and, if the arrangements do have to stay, be sympathetic to any difficulties people who stammer may have.
A few people who stammer may be willing to hand a note of what they want to say over the counter and indeed may prefer to do so. However, people who stammer will normally see speech as their main mode of communication, and will most often wish to be allowed to speak rather asked to write something down.
If a person is having severe trouble speaking it might be acceptable to politely give the person a choice as to whether they would prefer to write. However, there is a significant risk that this could cause offence.
A person who stammers was giving her personal details to a health service receptionist. She got her name out with some trouble while the receptionist waited. The receptionist then handed her a piece of paper and pen and asked her to write down her address and telephone number. The receptionist did this as if she might have asked any fluent person to write down their details in the same way. Given the way it was done, this was perfectly acceptable to the person who stammered. (Note: people who stammer do often have particular difficulty saying personal details such as name, address and phone number.)
There is an example in the 2011 Services Code of Practice about exchanging written notes at a railway booking office as a possible reasonable adjustment. However, a person who stammers should generally be allowed to speak if that is what they wish.
Equality Act Code of Practice
“The operator of a booking office at a small heritage railway decides to communicate with passengers who have speech or hearing impairments by exchanging written notes. This is likely to be a reasonable step for this service provider to have to take.
However, it is unlikely to be a sufficient reasonable adjustment for the operator of a ticket office at a mainline rail terminus to make for passengers. Instead, it installs an induction loop system and a textphone. These are likely to be reasonable steps for a large station to take. (My comment: induction loops and textphones are not generally helpful for people who stammer – see below on textphones.)
Para. 7.31, Equality Act 2010 Code of Practice: Services, public functions and associations, 2011.
Text Relay service and textphones
Most people who stammer do not use textphones or the Text Relay service (see Telephone>Text Relay service – typing instead of speaking), and indeed do not know about them. The Text Relay service does have an “I’ll be typing and hearing” option for speech-impaired people – or both parties can converse by text where the business offers a textphone number. However, perhaps because people who stammer can talk to a greater or lesser extent, it is probably fair to say that for the vast majority of people who stammer this app and textphones are not on the radar. Also speech therapists are likely to encourage people who stammer towards speaking in situations (such as the phone) which they may previously have been avoiding.
Some people who stammer do use mobile text messages or messaging apps a lot, as it can be a lot cheaper and easier than making a mobile phone call with a stammer!