A few years ago Bernice Gauci was in class when her lecturer asked the students to introduce themselves to one another – but when her turn arrived, she could not say her name.
“I went home and started crying. I thought: ‘It can’t be that I can’t say my... name. I have to do something... about it’.”
So she went to speech language pathologist Joseph Agius who started by telling her: stuttering is a gift.
“I remember thinking: he has no clue what he’s saying,” the 24-year-old says.
After her first meeting with Dr Agius, she went home and thought about it. What she realised changed her outlook on life – because she was a stutterer she was sensitive to others since she knew what it was like living with a daily challenge.
“I realised it is a gift that gave me a lot... without taking anything from me. Even if I were not a stutterer, I don’t think I’d be a Hollywood star. So it didn’t take anything from me,” she smiles.
In fact Ms Gauci – a nurse specialised in mental health – is now the president of the Stuttering Association of Malta, launched on Saturday, which aims to create awareness about stuttering and offer support and guidance.
This is who I am. I didn’t want them to see me without my stuttering
The association will start off by reaching out to young people who stutter. “They see us – adults – and we can be role... models to them. When I was small... I did not have anyone... like me, a stutterer,” Ms Gauci says adding that she started stuttering when she was 10.
Ms Gauci recalls that once, when she was in secondary school, her teacher asked her to read an excerpt from a book aloud in class. She started reading and stuck on a word. The teacher told her to start from the beginning and she was stuck on the same word.
“He told me: ‘go on, say it’. I thought: ‘is he serious? Doesn’t he realise I can’t?’” she recalls. It is to avoid such situations that the association will work on creating awareness in schools and beyond.
Dr Agius, who also coaches people in public speaking, said he knew of schoolage children who got physically sick in the morning when they knew they had to read aloud in class.
This fear is not limited to children as he also works with adults who shy away from job interviews because of their stuttering.
He explains that one per cent of the population stutter and, in his experience, one of the main problems is the unpredictability – a person who stutters never knows when they are going to stick.
While he helps them minimise their stuttering in certain situations, the change in his clients comes about when they accept their condition.
“I tell them it’s a gift. The new ones look at me and say it’s a gift from hell,” he chuckles, adding that people who stutter are often gifted with humility and creativity.
“They would have lived their lives taking on-the-spot decisions,” he says as he gives the example of a stutterer who often got stuck on the name of his daughter but replaced it with terms of endearment like “princess” or “darling”.
People who stutter also tend to have good listening skills. “Often when someone is speaking we are thinking about what we are going to say next. But they listen,” he says adding that he always tells his clients that stuttering is not a problem.
Ms Gauci smiles. “If someone says they have a problem they get a bad look,” she says as she looks at Dr Agius who adds: “It’s about perception. You make it a problem if you want to. But it’s just a condition and, once you accept it, it’s like lifting a weight.”
Ms Gauci nods and recalls how, when she sat for her nursing exam, she started talking fluently – but she wanted them to know that she stuttered.
“So I made an effort to stick. I stuck and I thought: ‘OK now I’m back.’ This is who I am. I didn’t want them to see me without my stuttering,” she says.