When you’ve words but cannot voice them

Monday, May 10th, 2021 00:00 |
Dominic Kiplish, founder Be Patient Stammering Foundation. Photo/PD/NJERI MAINA

After years of struggling to fit in because of his stammer, Dominic Kiplish wants to create awareness about the condition that affects 70 million people globally.  

Njeri Maina @njerimainar

Dominic Kiplish learnt he was a stammerer at age three. He prolonged some words and repeated sounds as he struggled to form words. His friends laughed at him and made fun of how he spoke.

“I am a stammerer. I have really suffered at the hands of teachers who did not understand my condition and at the hands of peers,” he says, recalling  how he was labelled with innumerable nicknames in both primary and high school, all because he spoke and expressed himself differently.

Whenever he spoke and stammered, his classmates would laugh at him and make cruel jokes like how he was speaking like a radio with low batteries.

“I was the prefect all through class one to four. If I wrote some people’s names in the noisemaker list, they would troll me and call me NaDommy or NakDommy since I would always add na or nak before words I found hard to pronounce to make them easier to pronounce,” Dominic explains.

Stuttering, also known as stammering, is a speech disorder where a person has difficulty in speaking.

It comes in three forms: prolongation of words, syllables or phrases; involuntary pauses where someone is unable to utter any sound; or repetition of sounds, words or phrase as they try to form a sentence. 

Many famous people such as US President Joe Biden and former NBA player Shaquille O’Neal have all grappled with stammering at some point in their lives.

While these famous people have played a huge role in creating awareness about stammering, there is very little research or data about the condition in Africa.

There is even less awareness and intervention measures for stammerers in both Kenya and Africa. Dominic Kiplish hopes to change that.

Shame and guilt

The insults heaped on Dominic made him want to speak perfectly so that he could be accepted. He is grateful of his mother’s love and support as she took him to numerous therapy sessions.

He was however disappointed when none of the therapies worked. He felt shame and guilt at being a failure at something that came so simply to others.

At school, things did not get easier as other pupils were avoiding him as they thought stammering was contagious.

He became more isolated to the point he would bargain with his mother every Monday to stay home and not go back to school.

“I believe some of these things could have been avoided had they known about my condition as they would have been more informed and hence more sensitive towards my plight.

This is why I founded Be Patient Stammering Foundation,” Dominic explains.

Sister Gladys Rotich, a speech and language pathologist with Kenya Institute of Special Education says if stammering is not well handled, it can have a negative effect on the stammerer’s self-esteem.

She says lack of awareness about stammering may make it worse for those suffering from the speech disorder.

“Stammering is a speech disorder that results in disfluency in speech. I have come across many myths in my work with different communities.

Most of them are founded on fear and ignorance and invariably end up making the life of stammerers unnecessarily harder,” Sister Gladys explains.

Some people think stammering affects the cognitive side of the brain and that its incidence is in people who are not very smart. But Sister Gladys say nothing could be further from the truth.

Most stammerers are smart and know exactly what they want to say. They just find it difficult to voice it.

Another common myth is that stammerers should be taken to a special school. This is not necessarily the case.

While some developmental disorders such as autism maybe characterised by speech disfluency, not all people with speech disfluency have special needs.

Most are typical and can therefore go to schools, with tutors being careful to be patient when calling upon them to answer questions or speak up in class.

“The incidence of stammering in some cases can be explained genetically. This means a stammerer might have a parent who stammers.

In most cases however, there is no specific cause that one can attribute to the condition. There are two groups of stammerers, the early stammerers and the late stammerers.

The early stammerers start stammering when they are between two and a half and three years old.

At this age, the stammer comes and go. This means there are times children can speak fluently before the stammer kicks in.

The late stammerers start stammering between the ages of nine and 10,” Sister Gladys explains.

She adds that the condition may disappear naturally or after speech therapist interventions among early stammerers.

For the late stammerers, the condition may persist for a longer period or be there throughout the person’s life.

She insists on the importance of seeing a speech therapist early on, as with time, the severity of the stammer can be dealt with so that even when it persists, it is only mild.

Moreover, children and young stammerers tend to respond to speech therapy and remediation measures better and faster as they tend to be less self-conscious, learn faster than their adult counterparts and are less coloured with disbelief or the idea that it might not work.

“Attitude is everything for stammerers. They, therefore, need to be encouraged to believe that they can overcome the stammer or at least make it less severe.

This is why it is important to have caring and nurturing caregivers who will support and encourage the stammerer.

They should empower them ensuring that they are confident in themselves despite the stammer,” Sister Gladys explains.

She explains that fear and stress tend to worsen stammering, at times making it impossible for the speaker to voice even a single word.

This is why it is important to sensitise school teachers so that they can handle them with patience rather than in a harried manner that will invariably make things worse.

She adds that caregivers need to make sure their charges feel loved and appreciated, and carve out time to spend with them and encourage and support them.

Caregivers should also take the initiative to alert teachers of the condition that their charge have to prepare the teacher and make life easier for the student.

Dominic agrees.

 Therapy subsidies

“There is a day I went to report a fellow Class Seven student as he had wronged me. On getting to the teacher, words failed me so I wrote down my grievance on a paper.

The other student just happened to be the best orator in class. He told the teacher I was lying and that is why I could not find the words to voice my grievances.

This further stressed me as I knew exactly what I wanted to say but I could not voice it.

The teacher ended up beating me for lying as the culprit went scot-free,” he explains. 

Dominic says adaptive measures have helped him over time, including trying to relax and breathe through hard words. 

Sister Gladys insists on the importance of linking stammerers with others like them so that they do not feel isolated.

This both encourages the stammerer and caregivers as it creates a community and exposes everyone involved to real examples of what is possible with therapy, love and care.

But is it easy to access a speech therapist in Kenya? Sister Gladys is just one of 16 speech therapists registered with Association of Speech and Language Therapists in Kenya.

This means that each speech therapist is supposed to serve thousands and thousands of children every day to diagnose, dismiss or help treat the incidence of speech disorders if it is there. 

“Speech therapy is also not cheap. Booking a session can be anything between Sh3,500 and Sh6,000 depending on the hospital.

Moreover, one needs at least 10 sessions to see any perceivable change. This cost makes speech therapy inaccessible to many Kenyan families,” Sister Gladys explains.

But all is not lost. Organisations such as Dominic’s aim at advocating for the government to intervene and subsidise speech therapy costs to make it more accessible to Kenyans.

Dominic believes concerted efforts of everyone whether through raising awareness or simply being kinder to the next stammerer they come across, is the key to making life easier for them.

As to those who are struggling with stammering, Dominic’s advice to them is to accept themselves as they are and not play small.

“Be strong, speak up. Do not shrink yourself because you stammer and are afraid of taking up people’s time as you speak. Breathe and speak up anyway.

Work on your self-esteem and go ahead to do the great things in life that you are destined to do. Do not stand in your way since your stammer sure is not,” Dominic says in conclusion.

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