Stuttering is not a problem in itself but becomes one when it is stigmatized. I stuttered a lot as a child. The little demons of stutter followed me into adulthood until they fizzled out on their own accord.
My early experiences led to a lack of acquaintances in my life. I continued to crave deep connections — the ones who can just look past my stutter and grow with me. Shuttered in my cage, fear prevented me from showing the real me to the world. The ‘long pauses’, ‘blocks’ and ‘audible-less words’ continued.
When people ask me about my stutter or when they tried to correct my fluency, I’d completely shut down and resent them. I would try to change the subject, move to a different spot in the room or run outdoors. I had (as still do) trouble with ‘s’ and ‘r’ as I have never heard those consonants in my life as I lost hearing in those frequency ranges from birth. I learnt through acquired speech by way of numerous speech therapies and vocal trainings.
Rebelling with Myself
In my 20s, I learnt to find little peace with my unique speech and stutter. I continued to wage personal wars with my childhood trauma and school bullies. I practiced insanely on enunciating each word and taking multiple pauses before long phrases. I could rarely ‘walk and talk’ at the same time because when I catch up on my breathing, my brain and body refuse to work in concert.
I was lucky to be backed up by one friend-ally in each school grade. I admitted to her that I had been self-training since 5th grade. I swap and substitute ‘s’ words at the spur of a moment. I take a pause before the ‘s’ word and quickly interject with another consonant. I pre-played conversations in my mind before a big moment. I dreaded reading aloud in classes although I was an avid, silent reader. I proofread their work and polished up their play scripts despite never being chosen for a play.
Instead of ‘school’, I said ‘educational institute’ or ‘class’. I would get a quizzical look. I would give a fake smile and pretend that I was just playing along!
One day on our school’s jogging track, my 6th grade friend grabbed my shoulder and stopped me. She said, ‘Stop swapping. Say the words and breathe out.”
I argued that people don’t understand me. My friend reiterated, ‘We also have to make an effort to understand you. It can not be on you alone.’
I needed that affirmation from more than one person that I am fine the way I was. I wish I had grown up with less self-limiting beliefs or be told that I could be anyone I wanted.
Medical professionals try to treat the defect only. Allies teach you that it is not okay to mock someone or belittle them for a fault none of your own. Slowly, I learnt to self-advocate but still failed. Society and universities kept making me a target.
I had to kill the demons. I applied to employments where I knew I would not be hired. I applied to programs which required lots of communication. I wrote cover letters to school principals that your school could benefit from more diversity in faculty members and that children need experience of ‘othering’. I explained that there are kids who stutter and I should be their teacher.
Stutter and Stigmatization
A stutter becomes a target for stigmatization, belittling someone’s existence and becomes a bad reason to refuse service or assistance especially when combined with a hearing or any other sensory disorder. On the other hand, ableist people are often praised for excelling in their fields in spite of their stutter or stammer.
People need to be more aware of the psychological stress of managing their thought process before speaking, It took me more than 16 years to develop and perfect my own ‘acquired’ speech.
All the weird looks we get in public, all the shitty images we see in the media, all the lowered expectations that people project onto us — they can all be thrown out and replaced with something better.
Killing the Demons: Behind the Scenes
Capt. ‘Sully’ Sullenberger, a retired pilot, and public speaker, stuttered and dealt with his demons for a very long time. So did Joe Biden, the American presidential contender. Sully wrote, “You become a true leader, not because of how you speak, but because of what you have to say — and the challenges you have overcome to help others.”
In 2015, I was awarded the Fulbright scholarship to study Masters in Special Education from Boston University. As multicultural and multilingual as Boston could get, there was a very high level of acceptance in general. I opened up gradually. I found one ally, then two and finally a community.
As the semesters rolled in, I went to battle my own demons in classrooms and during seminar pitches. The anatomy of frustration crept in. The more I wanted to share my thoughts with professors and fellows, the more I was tied down by my demons.
I was doing well academically but socially I wanted to take responsibility for my own iceberg (see figure below).
In the summer of 2016, I came across a posting about a stutter group at Sargent College in Boston University (BU). These group sessions were offered both for BU students and to members of the American public. Anyone who wanted to work on their self-acceptance and manage their stutter (note: I wrote ‘manage’ not ‘reduce’ as that was the emphasis). Their past goals were focused intensively on ‘fluency’ and ‘speech improvement’ which often resulted in anxiety and isolation. In a push towards more inclusion, they renewed their vision, ‘Our goal is to help individuals who stutter become effective and confident communicators.’ which became my real reason for joining too — accept my stutter and become a confident communicator.
While I personally never preferred a label, some of the group members identified themselves as mild or severe ‘stutter-ers’. We would give each speaker 15–30 seconds or sometimes as long as 3 minutes, uninterrupted, without choosing to leave the room while they spoke.
Giving another person a few short seconds, much less 30, to gather their thoughts and find a way to cohesively put them out is not a usual norm in a world that prefers fast-paced “normal” conversation.
These speakers thus ended up teaching us just how important the price of respecting another human being is alongside the wonders we all spread given a respectable space to express our thoughts.
This group also confronted Ableism heads-on, how even after how far we have come, we still haven’t managed to get rid of our internalized prejudice against individuals with disability. Ableism isn’t necessarily just ‘hating’ a disability but also how it reveals itself through daily micro-aggressions. These micro-aggressions can range from the use of mood disorders in casual conversations, “My mother is such a neat freak, she’s OCD”, “You’re acting so bi-polar today”, or simply the big inconvenience like parking your vehicle in the reserved spot for people with disabilities.
These group sessions were a safe space where there was no judgement, no shame, or mockery. Just simple acceptance. I preferred an interaction-based approach to address my personal challenges because of how the coach and participants brought clarity to a lot of questions we had during our practice sessions.
We learnt to listen patiently and test our nerves. At one point, they removed the classroom clock, mobile, and watches so we could not look at the minutes! We learnt to communicate, with and without our stutters. We focused deeply on our deep breathing techniques and address some of our fears. Our age group ranged from 21 to 75 years old, with members who were employed in different capacities — a front-desk call agent, a sports coach, and a former CEO of a start-up. I was somewhere in the middle, age and profession-wise, but insanely curious nonetheless.
As expected, the first-timers often were little impatient as we squirmed in our seats, nodded politely while resisting all attempts to interject the speaker. The golden rule was to wait patiently during the 1st and 2nd sessions. Around the 3rd and 4th sessions, the time it took for someone to start speaking after a stutter became less as community acceptance and belonging increased. Think pro-active inclusion.
The entire ordeal taught me that if you want to learn to humanize any experience, try increasing the value for someone else. Increase their sense of comfort and belonging, and find joy in watching them bloom and foster. Find the price of being a human — earning and giving ultimate respect.
The Confident Introvert
Everyone who interacts with us, thinks about us, studies us, works with us, produces movies and TV shows about us, reports on us — they all have stuttering icebergs too!
When I started my internships at a nonprofit organization and teaching practicums in charter schools in Massachusetts, I observed many people in various positions of ‘leaderships’ who stuttered or stammered occasionally. Their stammer was generally accepted without the public or their co-workers mocking them for it. In fact, they were appraised for choosing to power forward despite their struggles.
I had a professor who was so proud of the way he spoke. The entire room would resonate with his sheer excitement and veracity of thoughts. In his seminar class, as intimidating it was, I challenged his thoughts. The professor was amazing and he stuttered often with a cool demeanor. He would look down then speak up boisterously. I self-trained to manage my own stutter that way having taken up inspiration from him of all persons!
My Fulbright program ensured they regularly scheduled conferences across the US. Part of the experience included networking with global Fulbrighers. At an educational conference in Washington D.C., we re-grouped and held our symposiums to tackle educational inequality in developing countries. I could no longer afford to be an introvert in a diverse pool of Fulbrighters from Norway, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, the Philippines, and Malaysia to name a few. We all contributed our conversations in the English language and learnt each other’s language. We pushed towards inclusion. I realized my self-perception greatly influenced other people’s perceptions about me. I had to put my best foot forward.
From Boston to Lahore: Reverse Culture Shock & High Confidence
You can always think of at least one corporate executive telling you that they choose not to hire ‘such people’ or that they are not ‘comfortable’ working with them. Perhaps even confessing that they were a bully in high school to their peers with disabilities.
Back to Pakistan, I joined a multi-national corporation precisely for the above reason. They had put inclusion as one of their agendas. However, from hiring to in-person training, there was lots of room for improvement. I made it my mission to improve feedback culture through confident and simple communications.
When I review applications from prospective students, I observe a recurring pattern. A large number of aspirants indicate their interest to participate in at least one foreign exchange program as they feel the need to “broaden their experience” or “gain more empathy”. I wish people would realize just how tragic the notion is. Our young adults are desperate for a chance of study abroad without building up experiences and inclusion right in their home countries.
Nothing about a person can be defined by a stutter, yet their true personality and potential are dismissed due to a small stutter. Missed events translate to ‘lost potentials’, ‘lost talents’, ‘lost opportunities to diversify your workforce’, ‘lost hang-outs’. Opportunities to pluralize your children’s friendship network and your own network.
People who know me can hardly tell if there was a stutter ever. I have come to terms with my hearing loss (which is incurable but livable & enjoyable to some extent) and realized that my stutter gets better for me when I am in a comfortable environment. We all stutter now and then either due to environmental factors or the psychological stress of speaking in moments of sheer excitement and nervousness. I have been in corporate meetings