My life journey has been like a roller coaster so far. I was born in a slum in New Delhi called Sangam Vihar. It is one of Asia’s largest unauthorized slum colony and home to a vast number of the working class. According to the Times of India, 90% of the criminals of southern Delhi come from this neighbourhood. Youngsters are indulged in drugs, violence, robbery, and all sort of illegal activities. There is also a steep increase in the number of suicide cases among youngsters due to lack of employment. For the youth, there are hardly any obvious opportunities. I was exposed to domestic violence by my alcoholic father and due to this, my mother was depressed in most of my growing years. I had to suffer more due to poverty. Even drinking water and access to toilets was a luxury.
I am grateful that I got admission in government-run educational institutions where we could afford education . Otherwise, I would have not been able to dream in my life.
I have had a stutter since I witnessed violence and mental abuse by my father. I used to do odd jobs to support my family. After graduation, I secured a well-paid job in an International Bank. But soon, I realized that I was trying to fit into something which was not for me. I started an organisation along with my two friends in July 2018 called the “Caring Hands Foundation”. It was a spoken English and computer training centre. The centre was not much more than the terrace of my home. But we had a clear and simple rule: As soon as one entered the space, the only language of communication was English.
Being an observer, I realized that the pandemic brought many unexpected side effects: I witnessed sudden outbursts of fake news and forged videos which blamed one single community for the spread of Covid-19 in India. To counter this hate campaign, I designed a “Cyber Hygiene” program as I felt that practicing appropriate online etiquette was as crucial as maintaining physical hygiene like washing hands.
Later, we also campaigned against online bullying, trolling, financial fraud, and other malpractices. we believe that advocacy and counselling make our online users less vulnerable to cyber-attacks. It was the first programme for which I got funding from an international organization.
Our efforts were recognized by the Delhi Minority Commission and by the UN Global Compact Network. I was a member of the Peace Committee of Delhi Minority Commission for a year. The Online learning platform Coursera offered us a helping hand by giving our students free access to their courses. It helped us to continue our work remotely.
Due to less experience and no guidance, we were exhausting ourselves and working extremely hard to manage the organization. I then stumbled upon a post in a Facebook group which mentioned Kanthari, a leadership training institute for social change makers. Studying the website and learning about the curriculum, I felt, it is exactly what we, my friends and I, needed. Many elements in this curriculum were new to me, even the selection process with intensive interviews were an enriching experience. And then there was the pandemic, due to which the Kanthari 2020 batch was postponed. Also, we had to close our centre. Instead, we were distributing masks and sanitizers.
Taking my ideas forward to realize them in the real world, I also had to learn to unlearn.
Spending time and discussing different topics with other social changemakers from diverse cultures, countries and backgrounds are all making me think deeper and giving me a whole new perspective.
One day when I was telling my experience of attending the annual conference of The Indian Stammering Association (TISA) and how these two days helped me to accept my stammering and realise that stammering has made me a more patient, empathetic and aware human being. Suddenly, my mentor Sabriye Tenberken, a blind inspirational lady who is also the founder of Kanthari, stopped me and said, “why don’t you work for people with speech disorders?” This question makes so much sense to me. I see this idea as a beginning of new phase of my life and I named it “ssstart” as this is how I say start.
ssstart is a center that gives hope to revive the warmth in human communication through exciting and engaging workshops, activities, and events.
We provide interactive spaces for people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds to be free, vulnerable, and patient human beings. Our main goal is to create authentic communicators who convey their message thoroughly and balance speaking and listening effectively.
We believe that any limitation can also be viewed as an advantage, and we call this the “unfair advantage”. At ssstart, we strive to empower people with different speech disorders—like stammering, lisping, sigmatism (repetitive use of the ‘s’ sound in every word), and aphasia (forgetting words)—by focusing on direct and truthful communication while embracing speech disabilities. Next to empowering those with speech disorders, we advocate a society that communicates openly, thinks critically, and values patience and people so that when we, those with speech disorders, try to convey our messages, those without speech disorders listen till we finish even if it takes some time. This also implies that the listeners don’t finish our sentences if we get stuck.
At ssstart, we demonstrate self-humor through activities like stand-up comedy, rapping and street plays. We want to prove that we deserve to be heard and belong in society. Occasionally, we invite successful personalities with speech disabilities to boost the self-confidence of our participants and show them that they can also achieve their dreams through constant practice and determination.
We offer workshops focused on body language, public speaking, and sign language. We also get help from experienced psychologists for people suffering from traumas that require clinical support. We are on a mission to question the conventions that mechanize our existence. We are developing methodologies for new ways of communication that are simple yet effective, slow yet long-lasting, and professional yet playful.
On International Stammering Awareness Day, let’s pledge to unlearn the stereotypes and make the world kinder for everyone!
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About the Guest Author: Puneet Singh Singhal is from New Delhi, India. He is a person with an undiagnosed learning disability and stammering. His experiences come from the intersection of poverty, domestic violence, and multiple invisible disabilities. He is a disability activist advocating for a more inclusive and accessible society for people with different and distinct, visible, and invisible disabilities. He is the founder of a non-profit called ssstart, working towards normalizing speech and communication disabilities, mainly stammering.