This post was written by Duha Haque, a UTS student and member of the Student Learning Advisory Committee (SLAC).
Being unable to speak fluently in a society where verbal communication is the norm is extremely alienating. It’s something that’s hard to understand unless you’ve experienced it. Things that are considered standard by society – being able to order drinks or food, asking for directions, asking employees for help with finding anything in a store, or just trying to answer a question someone asks you is almost impossible to do without having feelings of immense shame attached to it. A lot of the time, it’s simply impossible to even do those tasks. Despite alternatives – I tend to write down what I try to say – many people often ignore them, and it turns out to be not very helpful.
Collaborating with fellow students
Keeping up in such a speech-oriented society is particularly hard when trying to adapt to university life, where almost everything is group work or requires collaboration. Responses from students and teachers are a mixed bag – sometimes I get groups where everyone is respectful. Most of the time though, it’s not as smooth. I’ve had groups purposely exclude me from meetings because communicating was ‘too difficult’, group members assume I was stupid for not being able to speak, or assuming I was ‘faking it’ to get out of work, or other times they’d force me to speak and then get upset when it took me a very long time to say anything.
Sometimes I’d use text-to-speech assistive technology and receive complaints about how it was too robotic, and times when I’d use the chat, complaints about how it was too difficult to read the chat during a verbal discussion as it interrupts the flow. Other times, particularly during online classes, the chat just gets completely ignored. At that point, I’m left with very little option in terms of being able to collaborate with classmates.
Studying online and offline
Both online and on-campus classes are challenging. Online classes have the bonus of a chat function, with the downside being that many people don’t check it, or in some instances the host has it disabled. At times, I have had to ask teachers multiple times if they could turn on the chat at least in breakout rooms so I am able to discuss with group members, but these requests often go ignored. On the plus side, sometimes students do check it, and its much easier for me to have a discussion.
In on-campus classes, it’s hard to let the teacher know that I have a speech disorder when the microphone is held in front of me with no warning to answer a question, and I am unable to speak. It’s an extremely humiliating experience, and I know that this would probably be awkward for a lot of other people who also struggle with anxiety. For this reason, I vastly prefer online classes to on-campus classes.
What you can do
I’d just like to raise awareness around invisible disabilities for this matter and encourage others to have some patience and consideration when in similar situations. A little kindness goes a long way – I have fond memories of an on-campus class I had where all my group members were extremely understanding and patient with my stutter, and it’s something I won’t forget.