Tuesday, February 22, 2011

"King's Speech" rings true for stutterers who face workplace discrimination


Once in a while a movie comes around that really speaks to you. For Joe Moglia (pictured), chairman of online broker TD Ameritrade and head coach of the Omaha Nighthawks pro football team, that movie was “The King’s Speech.” Moglia says he broke down in tears when he watched the Oscar-nominated movie about the 20th century British monarch who struggled for years with stuttering.

The emotional drama starring Colin Firth struck a special chord with Moglia due to his own painful memories as a lifelong stutterer.

“I remember the fear and agony I’d gone through,” he said, recalling not raising his hand in school as a boy, and years later having to spend hours preparing for client calls when he got to Wall Street.

“People don’t get it,” he said. “They don’t appreciate how horribly gut-wrenching and terrifying it can be.”

“The King’s Speech” shines a light on the challenges individuals can face when it comes to stuttering, which affects about 1 percent of adults. While King George VI of Britain was born to vast wealth, many must come to terms with and overcome their disability and society’s biases to have a thriving career.

Often the bias is self-inflicted: Many stutterers are themselves too frightened to pursue their dream job or convinced they can never achieve their dreams their speech deficiencies.

“So many people who stutter are really ashamed of the fact that they stutter,” said Joseph Klein, assistant professor of speech language pathology at the University of South Alabama. That fact, combined with the perception by some that stutterers may be less intelligent or unable to communicate can impede job prospects, he said.

Klein's research found 70 percent of individuals who stutter said their stuttering diminished their chances of getting hired or promoted, more than 30 percent thought stuttering affected their job performance and 20 percent were turned down for a job or promotion because of their stuttering.

Pamela Mertz said she was fired from a job she held for 20 years because of her stuttering after a new contractor took over the federally funded jobs training program she was working for.

“A whole new management [team] came in, and I was assigned to a new manager,” she said. He heard her stutter several times at work, then mimicked her in public, and soon after that she was called in and put on a 90-day probation status.

“He had concerns about my communication,” she said.

Despite a long, successful job record, including excellent evaluations and several promotions, she was fired. It was a blow to Mertz, who many years earlier decided not to pursue her career dream of becoming a teacher because of her stutter. She chose to study social work instead and go into counseling and felt she was successful at it.

She filed a complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights, retained a lawyer, and after two years the case was settled.

The number of stutterers could be even higher than official statistics because many stutters cover up their problem. The disability affects three to four times as many men as women, according to the Stuttering Foundation of America.

Stuttering can be considered a protected disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, depending on the severity. Joyce Walker-Jones, a senior attorney advisor at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said if stuttering substantially limits an individual’s ability to speak, then it could be argued that the employee is protected.

But stuttering is not as clear-cut as many other disabilities: A worker who uses a wheelchair can be accommodated with a ramp.

If a stutterer believes he or she can do a particular job, an employer may be obligated to make certain changes to the job description, such as providing more time to make phone calls. But Walker-Jones added: “If the essence of the job requires communicating and there is no accommodation, an argument could be made the person isn’t qualified.”

Many people just don’t see stuttering as they do other disabilities, said Mitch Trichon, a board member of the National Stuttering Association and a faculty member in the communications and sciences and disorders department at St. John’s University.

“Among people who are blind and stutter, when they’re asked which disorder is harder, some say stuttering,” he said. “When asked why, they say, ‘People understand blindness.’”

.“'The King’s Speech' has really given the disorder a face,” he said. “You get to see the impact stuttering has in a non-comical way; where people can see the shame and embarrassment involved.”

Aaron Hartman was one of those frustrated people tired of being discriminated against. But he fought back. He was a fourth-year medical student last year who had completed all the requirements he needed to graduate, except passing an oral exam.

Hartman, who has an extremely profound stutter, requested he be able to take the test with a text-to-speech device. But the National Board of Medical Examiners, which administers the test, denied the request, said Hartman’s attorney Charles Weiner, who filed a suit on his behalf under the ADA. The judge granted Hartman a temporary injunction, and he was able to use the device.

“As a stutterer, I felt it was incredibly important to fight the (board's) denial of my request to use text-to-speech on my examination,” said Hartman via e-mail. “The request was fair, and to take the exam without it would put me at a disadvantage. Would they deny a deaf person an accommodation? What about someone in a wheelchair?”

“I am still capable of being a doctor," Hartman said. "What I do with my life is my decision. I would like others who stutter to learn from my experience. You should never allow anyone to hold you back from fulfilling your dream because of your stutter.”

For Akshaya Mahapatra, it was his own fear, in part, that kept him from pursuing his desired career path. A software engineer for a company in San Jose, Calif., he has found it difficult to move up into management.

“I tried to get positions that need a lot of communication with other people -- project management, engineering management, etc., but mostly my requests were not entertained or (were) ignored,” he said. “After a few years I also stopped trying [for] jobs that need a lot of communication, and [I’m] sticking to what I can do well.”

When asked if he blames bias in the workplace for the glass ceiling he’s faced, he said: “I wouldn’t blame them for not giving me the assignments. I myself wasn’t confident.”

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As for his future, Mahapatra is feeling more positive lately because he’s working on his speech and seeing improvements in his confidence level.

There are many examples of successful people who stuttered including Winston Churchill, James Earl Jones, Nicole Kidman, Carly Simon and Vice President Joe Biden. They were able to overcome their speech issues and enjoy flourishing careers, but that mainly happens if stutterers focus on their positive qualities and are upfront about their deficiencies, said Jane Frazer, president of the Stuttering Foundation of America.

“We always make the point that the employee who stutters may well be your best employee because of his or her ability to listen to others, his or her sensitivity, and quite often above-average ability to write and communicate thoughtfully," she said.

In some ways, TD Ameritrade’s Moglia believes stuttering made him the person he is today because it gave him an empathy that has served him well in the corner office and on the football field.

“As a chairman, a business leader [and] a coach, a big piece of what I have to do is not just make decisions,” he said. “I also have to communicate with people. You want to be inspirational and a good listener.”

As for overcoming his disability, he said: “I have done it for four decades. I do a good job at controlling it, but I’m still a stutterer.”