Stuttering is part of me and always will be.
Never let it stop you from doing a job you want to do, even if it involves a lot of talking.
I remember very well when I started to stutter. I was 11. We used to have weekly tests for reading fluency and I was always the best in the class. Then suddenly my reading got worse. That was around the time my parents announced their divorce, which brought a lot of stress. Years later, I learned that the potential for stammering is there at birth and can be triggered by something that happens in your life.
Stuttering is a timing issue. The left part of our brain is responsible for speech, that’s the dominant part. But for people who stutter, both parts of the brain become dominant. As a result, the two conflict with each other causing a stammer. I always like to compare it to having two types of antivirus software on your computer. They would clash too.
Ordering a sandwich
Throughout high school, my teachers were understanding, and no one ever made negative comments. The negative comments came more in high-pressure social settings outside of school, like in a restaurant, at the bakery or at the doctors — all situations where you have to talk. People don’t know me, they want things to move on quickly, and there I am taking forever to order a simple sandwich.
When I was 19, I started working in the call centre of another bank in Belgium. A strange choice, you might think, given that you have to talk all day. But that was exactly the point. During speech therapy, I had learned techniques on how to control my stuttering which I had to practice in the evening. But I was always so tired at night. So, I thought it would be great if I could practice during my job.
Overall, the job in the call centre went well. I worked there for almost a year, but I had some less-good days, too. Once, a customer said: “If you can’t talk properly, you’re in the wrong job.”
At that moment, it was too much for me. I hung up and cried at my desk. At my next job evaluation, I asked if I could switch to the back office. Four years later, I earned my legal practice degree through self-study and classes every Saturday.
Let me finish, please
For some stutterers, it’s not apparent that they even have a disability. For me, it is visible. When I speak you see my mouth shaking, as I try to form the words. And I close my eyes hard to push the words out. For example, it’s hard to pronounce my own first name. The “P” is difficult, so the trick is to put “Pieter” in a sentence.
It sometimes happens that people anticipate what I’m going to say next and finish my sentences. Often, it’s not exactly what I wanted to say, and then I have to start all over again. So, if you talk to a stutterer, don’t interrupt them. And don’t look away during the pauses that come with stuttering. Show the other person that you’re giving them your full attention.
Stuttering is part of me. And it always will be, because once you have a stutter it never goes away, except for some very rare exceptions.
Going to a meeting
I feel safe at ING with my disability. When I joined ING around three years ago, I talked about it with my manager during my onboarding. He made it clear that it wasn’t an issue for him. He just wanted to make sure that if he sent me to a meeting I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable about going.
Before a meeting, I usually send a quick Teams message to inform the other participants that if I don’t answer immediately, it’s because I stammer. My colleagues don’t care about my stammering because they know I can do my job.
My speech therapist organises a ‘speech weekend’ twice a year. It’s a mixed group of around 40 people. It’s really cool because I can see that I’m not alone. You meet people who are doctors or dentists, and you realise, people who stutter are not stupid. My message to other stutterers is always: never let it stop you from doing a job you want to do, even if it involves a lot of talking.
Your whole self is welcome here
This article is part of a series in which ING colleagues tell their personal stories. At ING we celebrate inclusion and value a diverse workforce, as we know people are most motivated when they are free to be their whole selves.