Northern Ireland firefigher says his stammer has rewarded him with “empathy for others”
Joe Biden is the first US president with a stammer. Here, HELEN MCGURK hears from one local man about how his stammer gave him the drive to help others
Firefighter Peter Bradley, 32, who lives in Carryduff, developed a stammer when he was seven-years-old.
Growing up, the father-of-one said he had a lot of “negative experiences” in his “quest for fluency.”
“As a young fella I was scolded and told to “hurry up” and “spit it out” by a rude bus driver, and I accepted defeat. For a while after that, every time I needed a bus ticket I would hand over a piece of paper with the name of my destination to the driver to avoid being any more of a nuisance.”
Peter said he is often asked if his stammer is a ‘nervous thing?’.
“I do not class myself as a nervous person, but it is understandable for others to have such misconceptions around stammering as it’s commonly portrayed that way. Working as a firefighter there is no time for being nervous — my ability to communicate calmly and clearly under high pressure is necessary for my survival and the safety of my colleagues and the general public.”
He added: “On my first day of fire service training, just over eight years ago, I had to stand up in front of my 25 new classmates and teachers, state my name loudly and clearly, and explain why I wanted to become a firefighter. Of course I was the last one in the class to go, which was an absolute nightmare.
“The other lads and ladies were nailing the introductions and I was sweating profusely as the voices grew closer and louder; I felt doomed. I blocked for about 45 seconds on my name.
“In an attempt to save me and the classroom from anymore embarrassment I was asked to sit down. All my work getting to this point and my dream job was hanging in front of me like a trapeze bar that looked unreachable. I decided to stay standing and after some time I managed to say, “No, I’m going to finish. Everyone else got a chance.” I surprised myself. It took me a while but I finished on this one-liner: “I heard being a fireman was a good chat-up line with the ladies,” which gained some generous laughter from my new colleagues.”
Peter said training as a firefighter was intense and required him to shout loudly when communicating in the drill yard.
“Orders had to be given and we all had to lead on many different occasions. Luckily for me, when I shout I do not stammer. I learned this technique when my older brother got me a job as a bartender in a busy nightclub which played thumping music. This is where I developed my alter ego and for years I was ‘Big Pete’ the confident happy barman, and I loved it.
“One night I was asked to go downstairs to the old man’s pub and work there instead. I didn’t last too long. The quiet background music highlighted my speech impediment and it proved impossible for me to complete the same job that I had been excelling at just minutes before. I was ordered back upstairs; I went back and took refuge in the loud beats. The same phenomenon was occurring in the drill yard: I could roar fluently at my colleagues and successfully communicate amongst all the noise.”
An important part of Peter’s firefighter training involved wearing breathing apparatus (BA).
“The gas mask has an amplified speaker in it which allows someone to talk and be heard amongst all the chaos, noise and darkness that ensues when working inside a house fire. I discovered that when the BA speaker was activated the volume of my breathing became enhanced. This was a great distraction and allowed me to speak easily. Operationally, I was of average standard being able to shout orders and communicate when I needed to.”
Peter said he found out there is much more to being a firefighter than just fighting fires.
“The thought of going into a school and talking in front of a class of cheering kids about fire safety became much more daunting to me than running into a house that was engulfed in flames. I retreated from this obligation for a while.
“That all changed when my friend recommended The Starfish Project (one of a number of courses for people who stammer) and my employers very kindly agreed to fund my attendance on one of their courses. It changed my life for the better. I now lead school talks and get great enjoyment and fulfilment from volunteering to speak to groups, sending radio messages to our control centre and answering the phone in the fire station.
“I now feel empowered and able to do something confidently that once kept me up at night. My stammer has rewarded me with ‘bounceback’ ability, a high level of empathy and a drive to help others.”
The causes of stammering have perplexed people who stammer, researchers and therapists for centuries but we are getting closer to finding the answers. Unfortunately, there is no cure for stammering. Most stammering develops during childhood and is a neurological, rather than a psychological, condition. Subtle changes within the brain result in a physical difficulty in talking.
Stammering isn’t caused by anxiety or stress, although people may stammer more when stressed or anxious. It is often a hereditary condition – about 60 per cent of people who stammer have another family member who stammers. Most adults who stammer, around 75 per cent, are male. When it begins in childhood, this is known as developmental stammering.
Around 8 per cent of children, boys and girls, will go through a short (months rather than years) period of stammering between the ages of two and five. The stammer may come and go during childhood, but if it continues into adulthood, then it’s likely to be a lifelong condition.
Up to 3 per cent of adults in the UK say that they stammer. A far rarer form of stammering, known as ‘acquired stammering’ usually occurs later in life. The main causes are a head injury, a stroke or a condition such as Parkinson’s disease. Other causes can be extreme emotional distress, medication or drugs.
Peter has been involved in setting up a support group - Belfast Stammer Support.(find it on twitter), with his friend Jamie Wilson.
“Following a fundraiser last year we have funds available through the British Stammering Association to support young people in Belfast and beyond that stammer.
“We are also setting up peer support groups for young people that stammer ( secondary school level) as well as a parents’ support group.
“COVID has put this on hold for the moment but we are trying to organise these group meetings over video conferencing.”
And his advice to other people who stammer? “Stand-up, be heard.”