I simply love talking to people. Whether it’s to discuss a trend in pop culture or politics or to have a midnight heart-to-heart talk—there’s something immensely fulfilling about engaging in a passionate conversation with someone. But here’s the thing: I’m introverted, I don’t talk all that much and introducing myself to new people terrifies me, because I have a “stutter”.
A tendency to stammer while talking, whether during general or specific circumstances, can happen to anyone, and the symptoms may be mild or very severe, and the exact psychological causes may never be known and neither may the disability ever be cured. And it doesn’t need to be—there are strategies and therapeutic coping mechanisms to deal with it, like any other medical condition. Instead what we need is more awareness and greater empathy from society at large.
However, where I live, there’s little to no awareness about speech disabilities, which means that for the longest period of my life, I was bullied and made fun of because I “stammered” or “talked funny”. I remember my frustrated parents taking me from one baffled doctor to the next, having my tongue repeatedly examined and being asked to practice tongue twisters. Unable to pin down any specific medical cause, the doctors just blamed it on “nervousness” despite the glaring evidence that my “stammer” had no identifiable trigger, and could happen at any time.
No one in my family took it seriously because despite stammering, I was perfectly capable of making myself understood with some effort, and they were accustomed to it. And while I knew that my disability would perhaps make it difficult for me to befriend people, I wasn’t prepared for my classmates to gather around me and mock every word that left my lips, or come up with humiliating songs for the entire class to sing along to during every free period. I wasn’t prepared for strangers to point at me in the corridors and whisper excitedly as though I was some sort of “freak” to be gawked at, or the people I’d sit with in class avoid me during group activities because I was a “weirdo” or even shopkeepers to look at me and snigger when I’d go to buy groceries.
I realized that if everyone was going to laugh at me every time I opened my mouth, I might as well as sew it shut forever. I avoided singing classes and made every effort to not take part in any on-stage performances. At the same time, I was aware that while staying silent might help me avoid the bullies, there would be unavoidable occasions where I would have to interact with people and do the thing I dreaded the most, talk. And I knew I had to face this battle on my own—there were no medical or other resources that I could access or anyone I could turn to for help.
So instead I trawled the internet—I read accounts of people with disabilities and how they coped with the shame and hate they received from almost everyone, how some people in conjunction with their doctors and therapists came up with methods and practices to minimize stammering that usually involved visualization techniques, always being prepared with what to say, having synonyms or “replacement” words to use in case a phrase got stuck, and speaking at a particular pitch and tone. If I couldn’t cure myself, I could at least learn to hide the symptoms for a while.
And in doing so, I picked up a few life skills on the way. I learnt that persevering against all odds does pay off. While researching about my disability, I realized that most people think the way they do, because they are culturally conditioned to do so and to unlearn all of that, one needs to think critically at the very least. And knowing that there’s always a gap between what I wish to say and what I actually end up saying, taught me to be empathetic—both to others and to myself.
And although it sounds like pretty tame advice—several of these life skills are taught in schools, in conjunction with the usual pedagogic education. We all learn about the benefits of working hard, of being passionate and patient about things that generally interest us, of practising a thousand times till we get it right, of how important it is to not let other people get us down, and try to be as independent and self-reliant as possible. But the thing is, we aren’t taught how to apply them properly and that’s something most of us have to figure out on our own.
And at the same time I feel, schools and colleges should focus more on life skills than on formal education, particularly for us girls, because our sense of self-worth and self-image are so precariously constructed by and dependent on all the images and norms that patriarchy constantly feeds us. Battling depression all through my adolescence and teenage years took me to a lot of dark places, and no one should ever have to go through that.
The integration of life skills within a formal curriculum shouldn’t be difficult—taking classes on awareness, having a no tolerance policy for bullying, encouraging creative and critical thinking around problems, motivating students to ask the right questions and not discriminating among them on the basis of gender, sexuality or a disability, and finally from a very young age, making them realize how power structures like patriarchy, racism and capitalism all operate, and how feminism and social justice movements are trying to make things right.
And unwittingly enough, my disability also fostered a love for writing. It not only helped to bridge communication gaps—I texted people instead of calling them and I made some of my best friends online- but also helped me express myself and what I wanted in the most accurate manner possible. And that in turn opened up a new path ahead of me, for although neither my family nor my teachers cared much for all the bullying I faced, they were very enthusiastic about whatever poems or short stories or plays I scribbled down.
And much later, I slowly gathered the confidence to read my poetry aloud at events. The first poetry slam I participated in was a disaster because I was so nervous I forgot all my lines and had a panic-attack on stage but I was determined to not give up. And so I tried and tried again-I didn’t win any competitions for elocution or oratory like I did with my writing- but I gradually got better at it to a point where the prospect of speaking in front of an audience be it for an award, a seminar or a class presentation did not terrify me as much.
In college, I also started to work with NGOs or sometimes as an independent volunteer to teach language skills to underprivileged kids. Of course I still stammered, but instead of focusing on it too much, I directed my effort at the whole communicative process. Was I still managing to make myself understood? Was I being able to convey what I needed to say? And in most cases, the answer was a yes. I began with teaching small groups or on a one-to-one basis, and then later delivered grammar lessons to an entire classroom of twenty or thirty kids. I drew upon my own experiences at school- remembering how my favourite teachers taught me and what they did to make a class interesting and entertaining- and I applied those strategies with my own students.
I know I’m far from perfect, that although I have reached a point where I can deal with my symptoms and I have accepted my disability as being a part of me—I still have a long way to go. I still have social and performance anxiety, I get nervous around strangers and have panic attacks before every job interview and I still get depressed when people around me act in an insensitive or ableist manner, but I know now that I can’t change everything and I need to focus on being less judgemental and more kind to myself.
But the most powerful lesson that I have learned in this battle is this—one’s disability can help see the world, as twisted and depraved as it is, in a new and different light, and between negotiating with society’s ableism and managing my symptoms to live like a functional adult. I like so many others, have learnt some valuable survival skills that perhaps I would have otherwise missed out on.
And at the same time I think it’s imperative that our educational system starts focusing on people with any form of disability and becomes more inclusive, instead of discriminating against them. And it’s vital for young girls out there to learn just how crucial it is to keep persevering, to find creative solutions to problems and have the self-confidence to fight for one’s rights and live life on their own terms.