Farah Al Qaissieh signs off her emails not with ‘best wishes’ or ‘kind regards’ but the far more uplifting ‘Smiles and Support’: it’s indicative of the unwavering positivity she brings to her work as co-founder of Stutter UAE.
Al Qaissieh grew up with a stutter, struggling — as many of those who have some form of disfluency do — with the social obstacles that the condition presents as she moved through childhood into adulthood.
But a chance meeting with a fellow stutterer opened her eyes to the fact that other people shared her experiences and this proved the catalyst to launching Stutter UAE, an organization that aims to connect and empower individuals who stutter, by providing a support community, informal meetings and workshops.
“The beauty of the gatherings is that people who stutter generally feel alone,” Al Qaissieh explains. “Even if they want to open up to other people — their friends, their families, even a therapist — those people won’t fully understand how it feels to stutter if they don’t stutter themselves.”
Stuttering is a communication disorder characterized by breakages in speech caused by repetitions, prolongations or abnormal stoppages of sounds and syllables. Causes are rooted in a mix of genetics, child development difficulties, neurophysiology and family dynamics. It is often more pronounced in situations of stress or discomfort.
Al Qaissieh uses an analogy of a busy car park to try to explain what it is like for someone who stutters.
“Imagine you are going to the movies and you are running late to meet your friends. You can’t find a space at the mall car park so you are driving round and round. Then you finally find a space but there are many cars behind you watching as you try to park. The space is hard to get in to, so you have to keep trying and trying as other cars start honking and flashing their lights.
“People can understand that in this situation you would feel pressured, stress, frustrated, annoyed. That’s how people who stutter feel every single time they want to speak.”
In the early days, Stutter UAE struggled a little to get traction, and Al Qaissieh recognizes that the hardest part for most people is still to take the first step to attend a session. But as word spread and she was able to leverage global events such as International Stuttering Awareness Day, participation began to quickly grow.
“Those first months were scary as I’d put my heart and my mind into it, and no one was answering. But thankfully then people started to come. I think it has a lot to do with that discomfort, the fear, the uncertainty that people who stutter experience within them.
“They are hesitant to go out and meet other people, even though that’s something they need and, actually, really want.
“When they do embrace it and meet other people who stutter, when they can talk about experiences with no judgement in a safe space, they realize there is a bigger community out there. It’s a community that understands exactly how it feels when I say I say I had so many blocks with my stutter today and I felt frustrated.
“That brings a sense of relief and a sense of belonging. Just by talking, great things can happen.”
The Stuttering Foundation, an American-based global authority on the condition, estimates that one percent of the world’s population — 80 million people — stutter, which would equate to around 100,000 people in the UAE. Stuttering is particularly difficult for young people, with the provision of early support vital at a time already fraught with major physical and emotional changes.
“It is already tough,” Al Qaissieh says. “It’s already awkward. It’s already too much. When you add stuttering to that it throws things off the charts. It can get very dark, very lonely, and it can really impact the self-esteem and self-confidence of the individual.”
It has led Stutter UAE to spend significant time doing outreach with schools and universities, with support from the UAE Ministry of Education. Al Qaissieh believes that understanding across the emirates has improved dramatically over the past decade and feels that the most effective interactions are when young people see people who stutter enjoying and thriving in their adult lives.
“It’s important for children to see adults who have achieved things in their life despite their stutter. Because we believe that the stutter is the barrier to everything in our life.
“I truly believe, having experienced it myself growing up, that if we’re able to reach schools, youngsters and their families, we eliminate half the problem. Then the mindset has been adjusted at a young age, they’re learning to accept themselves and deal with things.
“Once we realize our stutter can be our ally, not our enemy, we are capable of anything. I view a stutter like an accent – everyone around the world speaks in different ways and with different accents; we accept that so it is time for us to accept our own way of speaking.”
In 2018, Stutter UAE received the Abu Dhabi Award for positive contribution to UAE society and it was presented to Al Qaissieh by His Late Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. The recognition was gratefully received but has only motivated Al Qaissieh to expand her mission.
“The award was a message to every person who stutters that we are heard, we are seen, and that we are important,” she says.
“It is also gratifying to see that people we’ve helped who are from different countries have now started initiatives within their communities. It’s really a ripple in the water.
“You help one individual but the impact is wider. There’s still a lot to be done, but we’re definitely heading in the right direction.”