I’m a senior public affairs professional and I stammer

My name is Paul Gerrard and I stammer. My mum and others in my family stammer too.

Disabilities don’t define you – your character does, argues Paul Gerrard
Disabilities don’t define you – your character does, argues Paul Gerrard

My stammer is most acute when I’m nervous, worried or stressed – but there are also words that I struggle over –  "hello" can be particularly troublesome.

In many ways, the job I do is a nightmare for someone with a speech impediment. I’m making speeches, doing interviews on TV and giving evidence to Parliamentary Select Committees. Speaking is literally my job.

I’ve spoken at the UN and to audiences of 500 and more. I’ve been live on BBC, ITV and Sky and appeared in Parliament to give evidence. For someone with a stammer, every single one is nerve-wracking and, frankly, terrifying.

What if I hit a block? What will people think of me? Will I mess it all up?

But I was lucky because Maureen Ann Gerrard was my mum and she instilled in me from being small that my stammer did not define me. It was part of me, but it wasn’t who I was.

She was constantly pointing out people who had stammers like Einstein or George VI – showing they had been successful – and she never let it stop me doing anything.

She wouldn’t let it because she was a force of nature. She also pushed me to do things that worried me.

As an eight-year-old, I did the first reading at Mass.

In the village I grew up in, just about everybody I knew in the world was in that church on that Sunday and I was terrified. Look at me, mum said, and shout the first word.

It worked and I got through my first public speaking engagement. Although neither me nor mum thought about the microphone when shouting that first word… it woke everybody up let’s say.

The same applies now when I make speeches. Recently, I was on a panel at the Labour Party Conference alongside Rachel Reeves MP, the shadow chancellor, and needed to make a short speech before taking questions. A senior politician beside me, 100 people in the room: an important moment for the Co-op.

But it was just the same as St Joseph’s Church in 1978. Focus on an individual, attack the first word and, most of all, be me.

If I stammer, I stammer. And?

I like to think my mum would be proud of me, not so much for what I do, but because of the fact that, like her, my stammer hasn’t defined me.

Disabilities don’t, your character does.

Paul Gerrard is campaigns and public affairs director at the Co-op

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