19/02/2021

Having A Stammer Is A Daily Struggle, But It Isn't A Weakness

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Having a stammer is a daily struggle, but it isn't a weakness

I know it's there. Of course I do, it's my name - who doesn't know their name? Me; I literally, literally look like I don't know my name. "What's your name?" does not have to be a complex question , but I know that it won't come out. The response is stubbornly lodged somewhere in my throat. 'K' has always been a problematic letter for my stammer. 

In theory, I am not alone in stammering, a condition which affects over 70 million people worldwide. It comes in the form of blockages, repeating words and prolonging sounds. To counter this, I rush words. I avoid words. I dread introductions. It is difficult to shake off the lingering shame of being unable to say a word that defines your identity. 

After 12 years of having a stammer, I have heard lots about awareness and techniques, but little about the isolation that accompanies having a stammer; it isolates you from a crowd because you don't know how to introduce yourself; it isolates you from others because it is a sign of difference; the isolation of not knowing anybody who struggles with the same thing.

I have become a hyper-speed thesaurus. Almost every type of interaction is rehearsed endlessly beforehand. I am acutely aware of holding up the other person when I stammer, which in turns makes me feel like a barrier as they choose to finish my sentence for me. While some may appreciate somebody stepping in to help, finishing somebody's sentences because you don't want to have your time wasted is a failure of empathy. Nobody should have to think of themselves as an obstacle or irritation for a condition they cannot help.

Stammering is often situational, amplified by pre-existing fears and the reactions of listeners. There is an unspoken societal need to be 'fluent' - it's in interviews, framed as being able to communicate clearly and fluently. I can see why a stammer crushes ambitions, with it being a condition widely attributed to weakness. Stammering is still a heavily misunderstood and somewhat stigmatised condition, often used in films to evoke cruel laughs.

Seeing Joe Biden as President fills me with pride to see somebody who can both understand and emphasise with the difficulties of communicating in a position of power. Nevertheless, I still find it difficult to see him congratulated for "finding his voice", as though he didn't already have one. As a person of colour with a stammer, it was somewhat empowering to see Amanda Gorman, who struggled with a speech impediment, not a stammer, recite her poem. Knowing nobody else who stammers, especially a person of colour, always felt particularly isolating.

A stammer is continually framed as a "defect", something we "suffer" from when in reality, we "suffer" more from the reactions and attitudes of others on a daily basis than the stammer itself. It is difficult for people to place themselves in the position of someone who has spent years trying to talk, to be listened to, only to have sentences cut short and people snigger as you order a coffee. I could copyright the amount of times I've been told to "take a deep breath... and think about what you're going to say, before you say it". Trust me, I know exactly what I want to say. I find myself somewhat irritated by the number of people who are under the impression that watching the King's Speech or Educating Yorkshire makes them a fully qualified speech therapist. It doesn't. 

The uncomfortable reality is that many stammers don't align with the traditional narrative of 'suffer' stammer in childhood, have therapy, which is often very expensive, and overcome stammer. There is no shame in not overcoming a stammer. There is strength in dealing with it every day. 

I am tired of being told that it is something I can 'overcome', which implies it is something akin to an illness, something that can be beaten. It is something I have learned to manage, every single day. Some days are better than others. Times where it is easier, times where I've either slept a little more or am generally calmer. 

There are still triggers. Telephone conversations. Zoom. Fatigue. Stress. Pandemic life, it would seem. Previously, I relied on eye contact during conversations to maintain some fluency - seeing people helps - but now there is nobody to see. There is Zoom, but looking at myself stammering does not do wonders for both my stammer and my self-esteem. 

When what's normal for you is seen as a weakness, it takes courage to be who you are. I am slowly learning to cultivate an attitude of indifference, to find respite through writing. Having a stammer is a daily struggle, but it isn't a weakness.

Kimi Chaddah (she/her) is a politics, philosophy and economics student at Durham university and a freelance writer. She frequently writes on politics, mental health, education and identity. Follow Kimi on Twitter. 

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