Today is International Stammer Awareness Day.
I am a stammerer. I have had my stammer since I was 6 years old. For most stammerers the condition is one that will live with us for the rest of our lives. For most stammerers the condition is intrinsically related to our personalities because it manifested itself at a very young age (between the age of 4 and 9). Most stammerers are shaped by the struggles forced upon them by their condition, as well as the manner in which people (positive and negative) reacted to them in their every day lives. Just like myself, many stammerers at one point in their lives have suffered abuse and ridicule on a daily basis.
Does that mean we are victims? Absolutely not and I refuse to acknowledge that label. My stammer (even though it is now barely noticeable) has helped shape who I am today, and I love who I am and what I have become, Alhumdulillah. But that is not true for many like me because the abuse or ridicule they suffered has had a lasting impact on their lives.
Having a stammer is not an easy thing to live with. What makes it even harder is the manner in which you are treated by others. At the age of 14, I still remember when I was bullied by a Pakistani school teacher at secondary school and was forced to read an Urdu book out aloud in front of the classroom simply because she thought I made my condition up.
The condition is still widely misunderstood in the Muslim community. It is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects 1% of the adult population in the UK. Recent research has found the brain structure and brain functioning of stammerers is different compared with non-stammerers. There is no cure and it affects 4 times as many boys than it does girls. It also has no impact on intelligence, despite stammerers being looked down upon by many non-stammerers as less intelligent.
So what does it feel like to suffer from a stammer? What does it feel like when a stammerer tries to force the words out of his/her mouth?
Imagine knowing that you cannot swim but are one day forced to travel across the ocean in an improvised boat in order to reach a far away destination. Imagine the fear you must be feeling just as you enter the boat (this is the same fear many stammerers feel moments before they speak to someone, leading to the build up of anxiety). Now imagine the moment you are hovering deep over the ocean and your boat begins to rock and you suddenly fall in (that same level of fear is mimicked when a stammerer begins to talk, because they know at any moment they could “embarrass” themselves when their speech comes to an abrupt halt and at this point the anxiety is in full swing). You gasp for air like your life depends on it but it is to no avail and you come to the realisation that you will eventually drown (this is the dread and anxiety that stammerers go through when words they want to say freeze at the tip of their tongues. The more they force the word out the harder it becomes to verbally express it and sometimes it can be difficult to breathe). Their hands become sweaty and their mouth goes dry. Thoughts begin to enter into their head. What must this person/people think of me right now? I can never show my face here again.
This is the life of a stammerer. Apart from the psychological and physiological (fight or flight response) impact that stammerers suffer every time they speak, many of their lives are characterised by social isolation, self esteem issues and lack of confidence, which in turn could lead to mental health and identity issues.
My stammer may have shaped who I am today, but it will never define who I am. It has tried to beat me back in life but it continues to fail and will forever fail insha’Allah. Being the rebel I am, I have made my life choices, including educational and career, with the knowledge that my speech impediment will never hold me back in life. Alhumdulillah, with that mindset I have excelled in each and everything I have done. This is the confidence we must try to instil in children who have this condition, because right now we are failing. We can make that change in their lives, but we need your help to do it.