How a special programme helped a Blackpool woman overcome her stammer
PUBLISHED: 00:00 07 June 2018
An inspiring young woman who suffered in silence for years because of a debilitating stammer has made a remarkable transformation.
It all started in a coffee shop in Blackpool. Most people would shy away from addressing a packed town centre cafe full of strangers, but 27-year-old Joanna Wagstaff stood up and spoke. It may have only been a few sentences but it was the moment that changed her life.
‘I knew I wanted to do it but it was such a big step,’ said Joanna. ‘I’d already left once and got on the bus home because I was so scared. But I pulled myself together, went back and did it. I knew if I didn’t, things were never going to get better for me.
‘I’d always thought my friends were really confident, much more so than me, but they all said they would never have been brave enough to do that. I was so proud of myself when I’d finished. Everyone clapped.’
What makes it remarkable is the fact Joanna has struggled since early childhood with a stammer so debilitating even the simplest tasks became anxiety filled situations. As a child at nursery she rarely spoke but it was at primary school the extent of her stammer became apparent. As she grew up, she learned how to cope with daily life.
Friends called her name out for the morning register at school and answered questions for her in class. As she got older, tasks most people take for granted became situations to avoid. Booking medical appointments, ordering food in a restaurant and ringing for a taxi were all things that caused immense stress.
‘I’d pretend I needed the bathroom when it came to ordering in a restaurant so my family would do it for me,’ admitted Joanna, who lives in Blackpool with parents Lynne and Peter. ‘Or I’d nudge my mum and ask her to order for me. That’s quite embarrassing when you’re 24. Up until that age, mum had to do all of my appointments for me. She is amazing but it didn’t feel good.
‘School was really hard. I just got through it. It was made easier because of brilliant friends who I still know. I’ve had it better than other people with stammers, though. Others were severely bullied. I was lucky never to have something as horrible as that to deal with.’
Over the years Joanna saw several speech therapists who were unable to help and Joanna had all but given up. But four years ago, just before her moment of bravery in Blackpool, it all changed. Joanna, now a nursery nurse at the Learning Tree Nursery, had seen Stammer School, a television show about The McGuire Programme. The programme had also helped singer Gareth Gates, now one of the most passionate advocates of the method. The series showed how using it meant people could beat their speech challenges. It had such a profound effect on Joanna, and she decided to sign up. In June 2015, she did her first course.
‘There were people on the programme who had stammers that were much worse than me and they got better,’ she said. ‘They had the same story as me where they’d also seen speech therapists and it hadn’t helped. It was a big decision but I had to sign up.’ The McGuire Programme works to transform individuals who stutter into articulate, well-spoken people.
With the introduction of what’s known as a ‘costal breathing’ technique and a traditional psychological approach called non-avoidance, the programme helped Joanna understand the reasons why she stammered and showed her ways of overcoming it. The programme encourages participants to use new methods and techniques with the support of coaches and instructors who have also been through the programme. As well as her speech in the cafe, the course included Joanna going out onto a busy high street and talking to as many people as possible.
‘I had to go up to people and tell them I had a stammer and I wanted to say hello,’ she said. ‘It is pretty scary at first but I managed to speak to over 170 people – the target was 100. You’re working with coaches who have been through it and everyone is in the same boat. It’s been such an amazing thing for me. I finally felt like people understood how I felt.’
What makes Joanna even more remarkable is she has taken things one step further and is now a member of Fylde Speakers’ Club in St Annes. She takes part in competitions and her story has captured the attention of other members of the club. It has lead to other public speaking opportunities, including for an event at Blackpool’s Winter Gardens and she also travels around to different towns and cities, including Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham, to speak to hundreds of members of the public each day. One particularly special moment, though, was being able to make a speech at her grandparents’ 80th birthday party.
‘People told me that I have inspired them, which is amazing,’ said Joanna, ‘But being able to do that at the party was something I never thought possible. My granny and grandad were so proud of me.’
It has been the support of her parents and childhood friends like Laura Hammond, Beccy Bielby and Beth Jackson that has helped Joanna navigate through life.
She now hopes to be able to support and help other people with speech problems and to one day become a coach for The McGuire Programme.
‘The programme is absolutely amazing, the support you get is the best,’ she said. ‘I cannot believe how much it has changed my life. I don’t have any problem doing those things I struggled with so much before.
‘This year has been my best yet and I can’t wait to see what else it might bring.’