How one woman overcame a debilitating stammer to follow her dream of becoming a teacher

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For 20 years Katie Toulmin was unable to even say her 
name without stammering. Now she is training to be a 
special needs teacher. Catherine Scott meets her.

Katie Toulmin’s life has been dominated by a stammer which meant she struggled to even say her name.

“My entire life has been dictated by my stammer. I even chose a university degree based on the fact it would involve more reading than speaking and gave up on the idea of ever following my dream of becoming a teacher,” says the 25-year-old.

But now, thanks to the McGuire programme, Katie is now speaking without hesitation, has regained her confidence and has a job in a school for autistic children.

“If you said to me four years ago I would be doing this I would have laughed,” says Katie who lives in Leeds.

Katie says she stammered from the moment she could talk.

“I think for a while my parents thought I would grow out of it, but as it approached the time for me to go to primary school, they realised that I needed some help.”

Throughout her childhood, Katie received constant speech therapy and, while she enjoyed the sessions, she never felt it provided her with techniques to actually deal with her stammer.

She was badly bullied while at primary school, including one incident when a gang of boys cornered her on the way home from school and forced her to try to say words she just couldn’t say and then started hitting her.

“It lasted for about two hours and was really frightening. I was so traumatised that it took more than six months for me to pluck up the courage to tell my mum. One of the boys was at our school and he was severely punished.”

Secondary school wasn’t a lot better, but this time it was mainly the lack of understanding from teachers,

“My stammer always got worse when I was anxious. When I was relaxed with my friends I sometimes could say two or three sentences before coming to a block. I also found ways of speaking without using the words that would cause me a problem. I think the teachers saw this and thought I wasn’t as bad as I was and so made me stand up and try to speak in front the class, which I just couldn’t. It really knocked my confidence further.” Katie’s mum tried to explain her daughter’s stammer to staff. “She said if a pupil had a broken leg you wouldn’t make them walk up a hill, and it was the same thing as making me speak in front of the class, it was virtually impossible. That did make them really think.”

If anything, attending university was even worse for Katie.

“I skipped all tutorials at university to avoid speaking aloud to anybody and as result made no friends at university. I didn’t use public transport alone so I didn’t have to struggle and embarrass myself by asking for a ticket I asked friends or family to order my food at a restaurant.

“My sister lived in Manchester I ended up moving in with her for the last two years of my degree. ”

It was graduating that made Katie realise she had to take action. “I just couldn’t see how I was ever going to get a job because I just couldn’t say what I wanted to say and there was no way I was ever going to be able to stand up in front of people.”

It was then they contacted the McGuire programme.

“We’d heard about it when I was younger and then when Gareth Gates was helped by it, but I just don’t think I was ready for it until I left university,” explains Katie. “It is very hard work and takes a lot of commitment.” McGuire is an intensive four-day programme which is run entirely by people who stammer, for people who stammer.

“I have never felt so safe in my entire life. Here were 18 people like me who knew what I was going through and wanted to help me. I had never even come across another stammerer before,” says Katie. “At the start of the course I was filmed answering a few basic questions. I could barely speak, I blocked throughout the entire thing, I felt like I wanted the earth to swallow me whole, I almost walked out of the room.”

McGuire works by teaching stammerers a number of techniques, including costal breathing, and self acceptance.

“Your voice sounds really mechanical and there was a point when I thought I wasn’t going to be able to do it. But my coach convinced me to stick with it.”

By day three Katie had spoken to 110 people in the streets of London, shoppers, passers-by, policemen.

“By day four, not only could I say my name with clarity and without hesitation but I could speak to my family without thinking about how to avoid a word I couldn’t say – I could finally look them in the eyes. This programme is all about facing fears head on and learning not to be afraid.” As soon as she finished the course Katie did something she never thought she’d be able to do.

“I went into a travel agents and booked a six-week trip to America on my own. It was the most amazing experience.”

On her return she started voluntary work for a charity, eventually getting a job for the National Autistic Society. She recently moved to Leeds and started work as a teaching assistant at the Robert Ogden School near Barnsley. Next year she plans to become a qualified Special Educational Needs teacher. “I really wanted to work with children with autism, I know what it is like to have a hidden disability. I can hardly believe that I am now doing that.”

Katie has to do her breathing exercises to ensure her stammer doesn’t return. She is also now a McGuire coach, helping other people who stammer.

“Every single day I speak to pupils, support them to become as independent as they possibly can, and reach their full potential. I can finally do that now because I accept myself as a person who struggles with speaking, as a person with a stammer but who isn’t going to let anything hold me back. I want people to see that anything is possible.”