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When words fail

By | Jan 18th 2012 | 6 min read

Despite her stammer Farida Karu, 27 now hosts a radio show and works in the PR industry she talks to, FLORENCE ONYANGO about how she triumphed over her speech impediment

It has happened to many of us at least once or twice in our lifetime, when you have something to say, when you have a thought or an idea that you want to share, but you can’t find the words to express

Farida Karu, 27 now hosts a radio show and works in the PR industry [Photo: Standard]

yourself. Can you imagine if you did have all the right words to say what you want to say but the words just won’t come out? For Farida Karu and many others, this is an everyday experience. Some call it a disability; others make fun of it, and most misunderstand it.

"Stammering is a disfluency in speech which can be characterised as repetitions of sounds, words or phrases, prolongations or blocks, often soundless." Speech therapist Emma Shah explains. "It may also include word or situation or person avoidance as well as other secondary behaviours such as disrupted breathing patterns, increased body, shoulder or neck tension and extra body or face movements as well as poor eye contact."

Farida Karu began to stammer when she picked it up from her friend when she was three years old, "I remember playing with her and it sort of rubbed off on me. At first my family thought I was just pretending, but when it prevailed, they couldn’t understand since I wasn’t born with it and it didn’t run in the family." She reveals. There are various theories on what causes stammering, it could be genetic, it could be trauma or as in Farida’s case, something a child picks up on, the truth is no one really knows exactly what causes it.

"Primary was very hard for me." Farida confesses. "I was bullied, teased and laughed at by my classmates. I remember in class three I had this teacher that used to insist that we stand up and say present during roll call. I had a difficult time with my Ps and I could hear my classmates giggling in the background. One time the teacher slapped me because of that. I dreaded going to school." Research has shown that even children as young as 3 or 4 years of age are rated as less likable and have less friends than their peers if they stammer.

For Emma Shah, It is important not to apportion blame, stammering is not the fault of the individual or the family. It is not something that people do on purpose. "Most people who stammer found that their stammering progressed during their school years and there is quite a bit that teachers and schools could do to prevent this progression." She says. "Many who stammer do not feel able to talk about their stammer with their closest family members or friends- this makes them feel very isolated"

Farida Karu had tried everything she could think of from stamping her foot, jerking her head and pinching a paper clip in her hand to try and get the words out. "My sister, who I’m very close to, would try and help me out because she always knew what I wanted to say. When my mum sent me to the shop, I’d go with her so she could do the talking."

Where Farida Karu lost her voice she made up for it by writing. Her turning point came in class seven when she wrote a composition that impressed her English teacher so much that she read it out loud in class. "I realised that writing was a way for me to speak out and it became my passion, it gives me the freedom to express myself with the confidence that I need. Growing up, I didn’t like it when people looked at me as if they pitied me or were embarrassed by my speech." Farida says. "It hurt when I talked to someone and they looked away because at the end of the day I wanted to be treated like any normal person."

Discrimination is there in terms of not getting jobs or not getting the opportunities that others have in education or social life. In Emma’s support group, one of the members was denied recruitment in the Kenyan army due to his stammer, which he was told, would prevent him giving orders quickly during an emergency. There are also accounts of adults who stammer being shouted at work or students being punished in school because they stammer.

"People are not so understanding, especially when it comes to work." Farida says, "When I had my first job interview a couple of years back, I was so nervous trying to talk I could tell the interviewer was getting impatient with me which just made my stammering worse. Since then I made it a point to be extra-ordinary in everything I do and well prepared, that way my confident levels are always up and I breeze through interviews."

There are many misconceptions about stammering people assume you are mentally slow and that it is a disability, and some who believe that their children will grow out of it, however some misconceptions have led to unnecessary surgery such as the belief that to get rid of the stammer one has to cut off the skin that joins the mouth to the base of the mouth (frenulum) or the uvula. Such unnecessary procedures can cause infection or nasal problems in speech in the case of the uvula.

Though her childhood experiences affected her self-esteem, Farida Karu didn’t let her stammer get in the way of pursuing her dreams. It is hard to believe that this journalism student, who hosts a campus radio show and has worked as an events organiser and in public relations once had an issue with her speech, "When I’m on air, it isn’t there, I guess because I’m comfortable. It’s just me and my co-host in the studio where people can’t see us and the pressure just isn’t there. Working in events and PR gave me the right exposure to get over my fear of interacting with people; the rest as they say is history."

People who stammer can improve their speech in various ways: improving eye contact with their listeners, speaking more smoothly, feeling more in control when they stammer, increasing their self esteem through activities they are good at, learning relaxation techniques and breathing techniques and so on. Different techniques work best for different people so therapists often try a few and come up with a combination that works for the individual. Adults need to devote some time to practice and may need to be quite brave in order to accomplish their goals. Children under age 6 can be ‘cured’ from stammering if given the correct kind of therapy and if they have a parent that can help them to carry out the programme.

"People normally look at me incredulously when I say I used to stammer." Farida explains, "The best way to overcome it is facing it head-on through practice, practice and more practice. Jump at any chance to express yourself starting with the mirror, your family and close friends if you can’t afford professional help."

Farida Karu recently produced a documentary on stammering that will create awareness about the issue and encourage young people to dream big and not let any disability get in their way. The documentary features a CEO in banking, a world-renowned filmmaker and a pastor who have made their mark in the world despite being people who stammer. "Shooting the documentary was a very humbling experience on my part," Farida adds, "I got to interact with people who’ve not just made it in life despite stammering but whose life purpose is to give back to the community through a support group that targets helping children who stammer."

"It is very true that every cloud has a silver lining," Farida says with a smile. "I wouldn’t be who I am without the inner drive I got from having to prove I’m worth listening to."


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