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Why more awareness needs to be created about stuttering in institutions

While growing up, LeeJude D’souza used to stutter quite a lot but luckily, he had a cousin, who used to also stutter like him. So, the medical condition wasn’t really an alien concept to him. He shares, “My parents never made me conscious that I stammer, they just told me this is normal. So, I never really went to a doctor.” Obviously, there were instances where he faced challenges at local shops in the neighbourhood and personally, it wasn’t always easy. “In my life, as a kid, I only knew me and my cousin brother, so it felt like a lot of burden.” However, after realising that there are many others who also stutter, he never thought of it as an issue, and one that Uttan local will just have to live with. 

Today, the 35-year-old is an ad film professional, who is confidently dealing with the challenge on a daily basis. In fact, he even has a producer who stutters, and has seen that the latter is completely confident. “So, I think, if he stammers and is a producer and can do his work well, why should I think otherwise?” Luckily for the Mumbaikar, stuttering, or stammering as it is more commonly known, was hardly an issue for him, compared to what countless other people face on a daily basis. It most often than not starts in school where oratory skills are necessary while giving exams and ends up trickling into one’s social life as people get older. 

Every year, the world observes International Stuttering Awareness Day on October 22, which happened to coincide in India with the Diwali weekend. So, what really is stuttering? Dr Ehteshaam Khatri, audiologist and speech language pathologist with city-based Wockhardt Hospitals, explains, “Stuttering is a common problem seen in a majority of children. It can occur due to abnormalities in speech motor control, such as timing, sensory and motor coordination. You will be shocked to know that stuttering can also be seen due to genetics.” The Mira Road-based expert says the problem can also occur in people who have had any kind of stroke, head trauma or brain injury, and the condition can be tackled with the help of a speech therapist.

Unfortunately, the conversation around the speech condition is limited to the circles of people dealing with it, and there is barely any awareness about it otherwise. While teachers and schools do take the effort, there still seems to be a lack of proper knowledge as experienced by many people this writer has spoken to over the years and it is left to the individual to find a solution as is the case of D’souza.  

Finding a solution 
After crossing grade seven in school, the Uttan local started getting aware about the condition and decided to take the effort to find a way out of it. D’souza explains, “I started focusing on what words or letters I get stuck at and what kind of situations I stammer. Like if you throw me in a panic situation or an area that is not my forte, I will fumble.” Along the way and in the process, the Mumbaikar realised that he used to get stuck with vowels, which he says a speech therapist confirmed when he visited the expert years later. 

While some people like D’souza have dealt with it, Khatri highlights that those who stutter can often face adverse effects. He explains, “Those children who tend to stutter are often bullied, ridiculed, or even teased at school. They become a laughing stock and other children may make fun of them.” This leads them to become shy and quiet, and very often, says Khatri, they prefer to be lonely, aloof, and away from everyone. “Kids who stutter, lack confidence and often avoid public speaking, reading out loud, asking questions, or presenting news are among the simple classroom tasks that can easily cause them stress and anxiety. Kids will avoid communication with teachers or even others.”

Interestingly, unlike other people who stammer and would usually prefer to go last in presentations, D’souza used to go first and face it head-on in school. “If I knew I was going to stammer with a particular word, I used to change them and change the sentence too,” shares D’souza, adding, “I always tried to find a way around it and that’s what I have been doing.” 

However, he does believe that teachers need to take the initiative and help students who stutter in class because it will only help boost their confidence not only in the short term but also throughout their life. 

If teachers know that the student is stammering and thus backing out, D’souza says, the teaching professional should help them out and make the class aware that they want the student to come and talk in front of the class. “That confidence to come and talk in front of a class really helps.” 

Addressing the elephant in the classroom
As more people are aware today than they were before, there are teachers who are taking the effort to educate their students about stuttering at the grassroot level, and Gavin D’souza is one of them. The city-based teacher has been taking the effort to go beyond the textbook and teach his students more than the books can, and one aspect is that of helping students who stutter. 

D’souza, who has two students in his class of 25, shares, “For the longest time, stuttering has had a maligned reputation and often, the responsibility of ‘fixing’ it falls on the child. I believe that’s wrong. We live in a progressive age now and it’s time that people around those who stutter are made aware and sensitised towards it, as opposed to the other way around.” The 27-year-old believes that people should work towards normalising stuttering so that those who stutter feel included and that is why he had taken up the topic initially, and if and when students do tease them, he tells them about why it is wrong. “It all starts with at least a conversation about it. It’s about time we talk, and eventually, create awareness about stuttering,” he adds. 

If D’souza has taken it upon himself, then Anjali Menon, another city-based teacher has seen schools also take effort. The Mumbaikar, who has seen children in primary school stutter, says teachers usually notice if the students have it and take action. “The teachers usually notify the parents and then they are taken to the school counsellors and if that doesn’t help, then they are suggested to take help outside school to overcome the stuttering,” shares Menon. In all the years she has been a teacher compared to when she herself was a student, the teacher has seen that more schools are inclusive these days and that is a positive approach.   

Creating awareness about stuttering 
Khatri iterates Menon’s observation about the improvement in awareness. The city expert says there are also a number of awareness programmes that are routinely being conducted to help this cause. “It is because of these efforts that many speech therapists now work in conjunction with schools to help identify and treat such disorders as this disorder is predominantly seen in the developing age,” he adds. 

While teachers make a personal effort to make their classrooms more inclusive, Sheryl Fonseca, who is the principal at D’silva High School in Bhayandar, says her school makes the parents aware about the children having a problem in talking. However, very often, it so happens that the parents themselves are unaware because they are too busy with work. 

At the basic level, she explains, “We train the teachers to sit with the students and talk to them. We also give them extra classes and teach them how to talk. We don’t show the other students that there is something wrong. We also warn other students about not teasing these students.” It is no surprise then that the Bandra-based principal says the conversation around understanding children who stutter has changed much more than before. “In case of oral exams, we make the teacher understand that as long as they understand what the child says, it is okay. We see that the marks aren’t cut because it is not the child’s fault. Otherwise, we also inform the parents and take a written test instead of an oral exam,” she adds.   

Khatri says it is very important for schools to treat such students with respect, and it is the responsibility of the teachers to see that such kids aren’t bullied. Being taught to communicate, he says, will only help make them become more confident, a point that LeeJude also made. “They will feel free to speak, ask questions, and will be able to live without fear. It is imperative for schools to create awareness about stuttering,” Khatri states. 

Tips to follow to help children who stutter by Dr Ehteshaam Khatri

Parents should communicate with children
Khatri says parents should take time out of their busy work schedule and talk to their children for at least one hour every day.

Avoid interrupting the child while they are speaking
It is important not to interrupt the child while they are talking and instead everybody around them must motivate them to talk more.

Educate the child about stuttering 
Last but not the least, teaching the child about stuttering can help. Make him/her feel important. If needed, parents can take the help of experts to guide them about stuttering.

Also read: Beyond the fence: ‘Borderlands’ is a heartfelt exploration of people’s lives at India’s borders

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