|About the presenter: Suzana Jelcic Jaksic is a speech therapist at the Children's Hospital in Zagreb and also owns a private practice, Logopedski Centar. She has a BSc and an MSc in Speech Pathology from the Faculty of Educational and Rehabilitational Sciences at the University of Zagreb. Her research is focused on the attitudes and emotions of people who stutter. A person who stutters herself, she formed the Croatian Association for People Who Stutter "Hinko Freund" and was a Member of the Board of Directors of the International Stuttering Association. Suzana was the organiser of the 8th World Congress for People Who Stutter in 2007.|
From the 1st to the 4th of September I attended the 9th Oxford Dysfluency Conference. Whilst there I chaired the second session of the opening day in the main lecture hall with over 200 dele-gates, mentored a colleague who was giving her first ever presentation and of course chatted with lots of colleagues from 30 different countries, many of whom I have come to know very well over the years. I also introduced myself to the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Right Honourable Ed Balls, at the Gala Dinner. So how did I, a person who stutters, find herself doing all these things that people who stammer would normally avoid? I would like to tell you about how I arrived at this position from being a person who stammers, who fifteen years ago could never have imagined herself doing any of these things. I also want to talk about what it's like for children growing up in Croatia now and what, if anything has changed in the way the public and the state treat them.
My story begins even before I was born. As a young doctor when my father married my mother he was concerned about whether there were serious illnesses in their families which could be inherited, so he checked both families' histories. But no-one thought of stuttering, fortunately for me, perhaps, otherwise I might not have been here. In fact there is no history of stuttering in my family, although a couple of my relatives might clutter.
During my mother's pregnancy and after I was born my father took great care that we received the best medical care possible, check-ups, diet, etc. As a young child my language skills were quite advanced and I was very open and confident and loved performing in front of my family and neighbours and talking to anyone who would listen. But when I was five a couple of things happened which, according to our family history, changed me forever. The first of these was when I went off to my friend's apartment one evening without telling my parents. My mother eventually found me and of course she was terribly angry. My friend and I were listening to a record of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs". Although I wanted desperately to say I was sorry, I just couldn't find a way to interrupt my mother's anger and get my words out. One of the dwarfs in that recording stammers and apparently my mother thought I was imitating that character. From that moment I had a severe stammer. Around the same time I had my beautiful curly hair cut off and changed from looking like a very pretty young girl to a child who could easily be mistaken for a boy with straight, thick hair.
I can still remember the shocked expressions on the faces of my family and neighbours when they heard me speaking afterwards. Suddenly this confident, fluent and talkative child was stammering badly. My father was worried and my mother's main emotion seemed to be a disappointment. I got the impression that she no longer enjoyed listening to me talking and performing in front of others. Shortly after this I stopped being so open and talkative and became much quieter and increasingly reluctant to speak in public situations.
When I went to school I realised that I knew most of what was being taught and that gave me back my confidence. I regained my pleasure in talking and I was happy to volunteer to answer questions. However one time when answering a question I became "stuck" and could not get the words out. After that I changed and preferred to be quiet and never volunteered to speak with anyone except close family and friends.
There are three other events I would like to mention. The first took place when I was about nine. I was outside with a couple of friends and one of our adult neighbours who we knew well was talking with us. During the conversation I stuttered. One of the children turned to me and told me to shut up. My neighbour told her off for doing that. It was only later I realised that she stuttered too. Once in school one of my teachers accused me of faking my stutter to gain an advantage - in other words, to cheat. She had heard me talking fluently with my friends during the break and then when it came to answering a question in class I stuttered. She did not believe it was real. Finally, when I was about fifteen and in my first year of secondary school one of the teachers used to get us to read aloud one after the other. During this he often looked out of the window in a seemingly detached manner. On the first occasion we did this when it came to my turn, I blocked. He and the rest of the class turned to see who had bro-ken the flow of the story. After that whenever it came to my turn he simply said "next", before I could say anything.
My first experience of therapy was not encouraging. My father's opinion was that the onset of puberty might resolve the problem, but then one of his colleagues told him that going to a child psychiatrist might help, so when I was about nine my mother and I went to see a psychiatrist. This was not very successful. I had play therapy which I did not feel was much use to me. My mother did not like the psychiatrist, so on the way back home she would talk very negatively about the whole situation. Consequently we only went there for about two months. I can't honestly say it was of any help to me. When I was eleven another of my father's colleagues told him how much going for therapy in Belgrade with professor Brajovic had helped her son's stammer. My father thought it was worth a try, so one pleasant May day our whole family, my parents, my younger sister and myself went to Belgrade. I remember feeling very good about everything, we were well looked after because of my father's position and when it came to my assessment I read and talked perfectly. I know my parents were embarrassed about that and had to convince the therapists in Belgrade that I really did stutter. They must have been successful, because a little later I started therapy there.
One of the aims of the therapy I had was to get the client to a point where they were able to help other people who stutter. In fact, it was said that a client was only cured when they were in a position to help others. I realised how much I enjoyed this and became determined to become a speech therapist and help other people who stutter. For me stuttering was no longer a personal disorder but a challenge to be overcome, and I decided that helping others to overcome their stuttering would not only help me but was my future career.
When pupils leave secondary school in Croatia they have to write an essay on a topic of their choice and answer questions about it. I chose to write about stuttering and also applied to study speech therapy at the University in Zagreb and was accepted. When I graduated I got a job as a speech therapist and concentrated as much as possible on working with people who stutter. However, personally I still felt very anxious about speaking in public situations and was very reluctant to do so. This started to change when I went to my first Oxford Dysfluency Conference and SFA's workshop with Hugo Gregory in 1999. I realised that many well-known therapists I had always admired such as Ehud Yairi, Barry Guitar and Hugo Gregory, stuttered but still presented their work in public. If they could do it, why not me? I saw that it was not necessary to speak perfectly fluently to communicate well. Much more important was having something worthwhile to say and the determination to say it. I also appreciated how important people's attitudes are to communication and decided I would try to help children not to develop such negative attitudes. That's why attitudes to communication are the focus of my research.
In 2000, encouraged by ELSA, I founded the association Hinko Freund, the Croatian National Association for people who stutter. For me this was extremely important; I felt it was almost my destiny. I consider this one of my greatest professional and personal achievements. Although I found it very difficult at the beginning, I talked about stuttering on national radio and TV, because I believe that the more the general public knows about stammering the more they will be accepting of people who stutter and the more people who stammer will realise that stammering is not a barrier to achievement.
We see educating teachers and parents about stammering as a core part of our mission. To help with this we organise celebrations for ISAD every year, as we believe that this is a great way to raise awareness about stammering amongst the general public as well as professional groups.
In 2004 I went to Australia to attend the World Congress for People Who Stutter. Although I was very anxious, I felt that I had a responsibility to the people I was representing to do the very best I could. I spoke wherever it was appropriate and suddenly found myself volunteering to host the next World Congress in Croatia. After this bid was accepted I put together a presentation for all the delegates at the closing ceremony to show them what Croatia was like. Three years later myself and my team from "Hinko Freund" hosted the World Congress for People Who Stutter in Cavtat.
Looking at the parallels and differences between myself and children growing up in Croatia now who stutter I realise that I never once saw a speech therapist. That is certainly not the case now. People who stutter in Croatia are now much more likely to be seen by a suitably qualified professional in a timely manner and to get an appropriate therapy, since most kindergartens and primary schools employ speech therapists. Nevertheless, much remains to be done. Not all other institutions understand stammering and they often put barriers in the way of people who stammer. For example, children who stammer are not allowed to enter secondary schools which train people for administrative jobs. I hope that my example will encourage other people who stammer to become therapists. Even if they do not choose that route I hope that they will be prepared to be advocates for other people who stutter and to speak out on their behalf to change the culture of their organisations for the better.
So here I am, invited by Judy Kuster to write this article for ISAD. I am pleased with what I have achieved and where I find myself. I still get anxious before presentations, before meeting different people, before walking into a room full of people. But I do it. My message is this: All of us who stammer can find their own ways to do this; to not let stammering hold them back and also to make the lives of other people who stammer better.