From pop star Gareth Gates to Scotland and Saracens’ rugby star, Kelly Brown, and his latest disciple – Musharaf Asghar, whose struggles captured the hearts of the nation in Channel 4’s ‘Educating Yorkshire’ – Rich, 34, from Tewkesbury, has helped more than 100 people to control their stammers since 2004.
Now a trainer for the ‘McGuire Programme’, Rich himself battled against a stammer growing up in Stow-on-the-Wold. Having tried traditional speech therapy, he had just about given up hope of overcoming his problems when his mum found a flyer for the programme, which had just come to the UK, in Stow Library. That was in 1999.
The film of Rich, aged 19, struggling to speak in his first session and the story of how far he has come is now used to inspire new recruits to the programme. Thanks to the tools or ‘weapons’ – that’s the term the programme uses – that Rich has been given to fight against his stammer, he is now a popular Sports Business Management lecturer at Hartpury and even had his own local community radio show.
As well as running courses himself, he also now acts as an instructor and mentor of other McGuire Programme trainers, which is why he was approached to take part in a new Channel 4 documentary called Stammer School. Being aired on August 28th at 9pm, the documentary follows the progress of five individuals aged 18 to 30.
The McGuire Programme took an interest in Musharaf’s story after seeing his struggles to overcome a speech impediment on ‘Educating Yorkshire’, with his English teacher Matthew Burton using a technique he had seen in the Oscar-winning film The King’s Speech. Wearing headphones with music playing in the background, ‘Mushy’ successfully read a poem to his class.
While this technique was effective, the directors of the McGuire Programme felt that Musharaf needed to have a range of ‘weapons’ at his disposal to control his stammer in the long term, and he was invited to join a course.
As well as Musharaf, Rich supported a covert stammerer on the course in Croydon – a girl who had been able to hide her stammer relatively well but was tired of doing so – and a young girl whose speech problems had come about since suffering a blood clot on the brain. His other students had a range of confidence issues and problems forming social networks.
Rich said: “I was pretty luck growing up, my stammer was bad but it didn’t define me. Thankfully, my local community and my school were really supportive, and I was head boy of Cotswold School, which is where I met my wife. She was head girl!
“When I left home and my tight-knit community to go to university, life became more of a struggle. I even had to carry cards on the bus with the name of my destination on to show the driver. You develop coping strategies but the smallest thing could be difficult, like joining the video store.
“I once had to deliver a presentation as part of my course and someone fell asleep at the back. Experiences like that fuel me now and make me determined to be as engaging and outgoing as I can be as a lecturer at Hartpury.
“Now, 15 years after joining the McGuire programme, I can get through most things without my stammer troubling me and I haven’t looked back. What we do can be life-changing, it certainly was for me and I get such a buzz from helping others to tackle their problems head on.
“When I speak to students for the first time, I tell them to be up front about their stammer from the outset – it takes the pressure off when the people you’re interacting with know what to expect and know you might be employing techniques to help you.”
Each student is filmed at the start and finish of every course so they can see the progress they have made. Starting on a Wednesday, they are not exposed to anyone outside of the course until the Saturday afternoon so that they can work on the techniques and build their confidence alongside their peers.
“What’s so great about the course is that you can see an 18-year-old Goth and a 62-year-old supporting each other; it breaks down barriers,” said Rich.
“My role is to teach students a new way of breathing from a different part of their diaphragm – costal diaphragm breathing – as well as to adopt a lower pitch of voice, techniques to attack the first sound of a word and different psychological approaches.
“That can be very challenging as you’re encouraging people to step right out of their comfort zone, but the course leader is with them every step of the way. And these are situations that people face in everyday life – at work and socially. The goal of the programme is for students to be eloquent speakers, not fluent ones.
“My style can be different to some other trainers, and that’s down to my lecturing at Hartpury and the training and experiences I have benefited from since I came here in November 2012. Before that, I’d been a sessional lecturer here thanks to my sports business development experience, and they offered to put me through my PGCHE.
“I haven’t come across any students at Hartpury that need my support with a stammer yet but I always keep my eyes and ears open.”