Reports Nijmegen / The Netherlands 2003
JULY 2003 - The 4th ELSA Youth Meeting was held in Nijmegen, Netherlands and received high praise from the delegates who attended...
July 2003 saw ELSA's 4th Youth Meeting take place in Nijmegen, The Netherlands. Reports below are by delegates Rezina Ahmed, Andrew Janes, Veeral Dhanani with a final comment by ELSA Chair Edwin Farr.
Introduction ( Rezina )
The European League of Stuttering Associations (ELSA) conference for young people who stutter this year was held in the Netherlands during the hot month of July, the theme of this years conference was "Extending Communication - Extending Borders". ELSA is set up to bring together many european national stuttering associations - to discuss the work of our individual national stuttering associations, to encourage young people to get involved with their national associations and self-help groups as well as creating a supportive network of young people who stutter, to share different knowledge and experiences of their stutter and to empathise and support each other.
There were many different work shop activities and lectures from the workings of a national stutteirng association, positive thinking, non-verbal communications to drama and group challenge in web site design of stuttering associations.
My own reason for going to this conference was a mixture of personal interest and curiosity to learn how other European countries deal with stuttering across the borders. While I was there I took opportunities to sit and talk to many people through out the work shop activities - finding out how they view their stutter, how they deal with it, what speech and alternative therapies they have been on and general life experiences.
Sunday 13th (Andrew)
My first, and probably greatest worry, was getting there, but the first 99.9% of the journey was almost problem free. The flight took only 40 minutes and, as a London commuter, I was surprised and impressed that both of the trains taking me from Schiphol airport to Nijmegen ran on time. There was no problem catching the correct bus, and I even managed to get off at the right stop, directly outside my destination, the Werkenrode complex, at about 3pm. It was then that I got lost.
After going entirely the wrong way through the grounds twice, I wandered back towards the entrance gates where I was lucky to meet two of the organising committee: Anita Blom of the Swedish association and Konrad Schäfers of the German association, who were putting up signs directing delegates to our buildings. They sent me off in the right direction, but I promptly got lost for a third time. I retreated to Konrad and Anita, and made the last 200 metres of my journey under supervision.
On reaching the main one of our two buildings I handed all my paperwork over to the third organiser, our very own Edwin Farr, before Konrad took me to my room in our other building. Now it was time to consider my second worry: actually surviving the meeting. Unable to delay the daunting task of speaking with other delegates any longer, I donned my name badge and returned to the main building to find some foreigners. Informal introductions and conversations began, and continued during dinner.
After dinner, Anita explained the basic set-up and rules of the site and conference. During term-time, Werkenrode is a kind of residential school for physically disabled young people, hence the hand-rails, the large lifts, and the alert system in all of the bedrooms and bathrooms, which we were urged to avoid confusing with the electric lights. (It was easy: the lights were switches and the alarms were pull-cords, except where it was the other way round.) The rota system for serving at mealtimes was announced to a few groans, but the blow was softened by the announcement that beer was to be sold at the bargain price of 50 cents [about 35p] a can...
It was then time for the formal introductions. Each of us had to introduce ourselves to the group and say something about where we came from. There were 28 delegates altogether, from Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and Sweden, as well as the United Kingdom. After this there was more informal socialising, with (for one night only) free beer. Tired after the journey, I turned in at midnight, the earliest I was to get to bed in a hectic week.
Monday 14th (Andrew)
The theme of the meeting was ‘Extending Communication – Extending Borders' and Monday's workshops began to explore this in earnest. For the day's activities we were split into two groups. My group began the morning hearing from Konrad on how national stammering associations, and specifically the German Bundesvereinigung Stotterer-Selbsthilfe, work. After this, Anita took over and introduced the week's main activity. Since the internet is one of the most important and effective ways of getting information to young people who stammer, our task was to design websites (on paper) for imaginary new national stammering associations. We were split in half once again, and each of the four groups was to decide what to put on our site and how to organise and display the information, in preparation for Thursday evening's presentations of our work to the other delegates. To get some ideas, we looked at some existing websites from stammering associations around the world and you'll be pleased to know that the BSA's website was judged to be one of the best.
In the afternoon, we swapped with the other half of the delegates and enjoyed a session by Bart van Rooij on bringing our bodies and souls into balance. This included learning and practising some useful relaxation and breathing techniques and making some rather unusual and rude-sounding noises by blowing down didgeridoos.
In the early evening there were a couple of presentations. Firstly, Edwin spoke to us about ELSA and ISA (the International Stuttering Association), how they act as umbrella organisations for the national associations and how the role of the European Disability Forum is raising awareness of disability including stuttering across Europe. Secondly, Gina Waggott, another Briton, gave a talk entitled ‘Positive Thought – Positive Action', in which she encouraged us to strike out beyond our comfort zones. Having two left feet, I avoided the following East–v–West football match and was soundly beaten at table tennis instead.
There was still some time to sit and chat outside before bed. Croatian Valentina encouraged some of us to record our voices and listen in amusement to the results. ‘Isn't it great?' Anita said, ‘Everyone has a different stutter.'
Tuesday ( Rezina )
On Tuesday we split up into groups, in the morning work shops each group was given the challenge of designing a website promoting a virtual national stuttering association for which we had to brainstorm ideas for various ways to acquire funding, best ways to reach people who stutter, promote the latest news, therapies and encourage and support the set up of self help groups. We had to prepare a presentation of our web design using a flip chart ready for Thursday. The group voted for the best content, design and layout won a prize on Thursday.
In the second part of the day we had discussions about alternative therapy - mind/body topics such as Neouro Liguistic Programming ( NLP ) which involves programming the mind to achieve our goals, relaxation, positive thinking and visualisation. We were also taught some simple principles used in acupunture of tapping meridian points on certain parts of our bodies together with positive affirmatives. This type of alternative therapy which I have already been on in England is called Thought Field Therapy ( TFT ), discovered in America by Dr. Roger Callahan. It is used in the states to treat people with phobias and anxieties and it seems like it is quietly catching on in other European coutries too.
Wednesday ( Rezina )
Wednesday we went on a sight seeing trip to Utrecht visiting the local cathedrals and museums, travelling by boat down the Utrecht river with 25 bridges, later stopping off for lunch at the popular riverside cafe serving the most deliciouse varieties of king size sweet and savioury pancakes. Later we split into groups and went shopping at the local shopping resort buying gift and souveneirs.
The long day in Utrecht took its toll on Thursday morning. Steaming pots of coffee were waiting in the dining area, but some of us didn't even make it in time for breakfast. Despite the fatigue, there was an undercurrent of excitement and anticipation during our morning meal because this evening saw the conclusion of our website projects.
When the workshops started, it was business as usual. There were two activities running simultaneously today. One of the activities was an introduction to non-verbal communication, and this was led by Hannah. The method of non-verbal communication we would be learning about today was sign language. We were given a short history of sign language, and then Hannah began to teach us the fundamentals of Dutch sign language. We started with the alphabet, and moved on to functional, conversational phrases and questions, for example, “Good morning! Did you sleep well?” In pairs, we practised structured role plays using Dutch sign language, and then in groups of five or more, we attempted to engage in more spontaneous conversation, with varying results! The purpose of this workshop was to make clear the distinction between speech and communication, and to show that speech is only one aspect of an individual's communicative arsenal. A stutter does not compromise an individual's ability to communicate effectively, and perfect speech rarely enhances an individual's ability to communicate; one need only listen to the numerous utterances made in public by George W. Bush that have left laymen and literati alike scratching their heads thinking: “What on earth is the man trying to say?!”
While half of the group were learning to use Dutch sign language, the rest prepared their website projects for the presentations this evening. Despite the numerous raids on Edwin's office for various items of stationary, there seemed to be a constant shortage of marker pens, glue, scissors and various other tools essential for the construction of our websites. But there was a gratifying abundance of ideas and raw imagination, and the websites produced represented the Stuttering Associations from such diverse places as Elbonia, Stuttonia, Atlantis and Saturn!
The afternoon provided the perfect opportunity for some much needed rest and relaxation. The sun had rarely been shy this week, and there was plenty to do: outside there was a basketball net and a small football pitch; inside there was a table-tennis table, table-football and a pool table without holes (?!); for those wanting to flex their musical muscles there was an electric organ and Konrad's acoustic guitar which he graciously let us use (and drop, knock and scratch – sorry Konrad); the dining area was a magnet for people wanting to just sit around and talk; and the sofas were taken full advantage of and used for no other purpose than a peaceful afternoon nap.
The presentation of the websites after dinner was a tremendous success. The four groups took it in turn to present their websites, and every member of each group made a contribution. There was a lot of support from the audience for each speaker, and this ensured an engaging, lively and humorous evening. Needless to say, it was apparent from the diversity of each presentation that we had all worked very hard and had taken this project very seriously; more importantly we had not forgotten to enjoy ourselves while doing it, and this was reflected in the exuberance of our presentations.
After the presentations, there was champagne, beer and music, and we allowed ourselves the luxury to bask in the wonder or our own individual and collective accomplishments. Everybody was very happy. Konrad's guitar was instrumental in providing a focal point for our entertainment, and a group of hardy revellers (including Anita!) were singing songs and drinking beer until four in the morning.
Friday morning was even more difficult to wake up for than Thursday morning, and casualties from the night before resembled zombies more than people, as they staggered from their bedrooms to the dining area over the course of the morning looking for the nearest caffeine and sugar fix.
There was only one activity this morning, and again this was non-verbal communication led by Hannah. Today's methods were gesturing and mime, and the exercises we used to practice these methods were less structured and less formal than yesterday. Essentially, Hannah introduced us to a series of games where the only method of communication was gesturing and miming, and then she stepped back and allowed us to just play. The purpose of these games was again to show that effective communication can take place without speech, and also to warm us up for tonight's entertainment!
We would be providing tonight's entertainment for ourselves. The task was simple: in our four groups, we had to perform a ten minute dramatic piece using only gestures and mimes. So after the morning's activity, we were left to envisage and ultimately execute our own ELSA Theatrical Productions. Preparation for these performances continued after lunch, and once again the afternoon provided a brief respite for our creative energies.
Dinner tonight was a barbeque, and meat and beer were plentiful! The sun continued to shine with reckless abandon, and somehow made us forget that this was the last meal we would ever be sharing together.
There aren't enough adjectives in the English language for me to describe just how good the plays were. You really had to be there. Our group of strangers, brought together from the distant corners of Europe, had shared so much and had become so close over the space of just five days that there were no inhibitions or reservations present during the performances. During those brief moments in the spotlight, the actors and actresses just opened up and let their imaginations guide them, accompanied all the way by unconditional support from the audience. The result was simply magical. But that wasn't the end of tonight's entertainment; a short concert was also performed by some of the musicians present at the Youth Meeting, specifically Marko, Agnes, Ana, Valentina, Konrad and myself, and audience participation was also requested.
The final night was very surreal. There was beer and there was music and dancing, but the joy was lined with sorrow because we had only met six days ago and now we were saying goodbye to each other so soon. For me, much of the night was spent talking to people I hadn't had the chance to talk to over the week. There were big pieces of paper going around for every member of the group to write messages for everybody else, and this kept us occupied till the early hours of Saturday morning. I finally went to bed at five with a heavy heart, wishing simply that this was all a dream and that the Youth Meeting wasn't really over.
Saturday 19th (Andrew)
Early on Saturday morning (at about 1am or so) I ‘danced'. I do not dance well and usually I would never dream of trying to dance when people are watching until after the third drink, but this time I went far beyond my comfort zone and approached the dance floor after only one.
The other activities for the early hours were completing a Blue Peter-style collage of our faces as a present for Edwin, Anita and Konrad, and the production of souvenir comment sheets. For these, each participant's name was written at the top of a separate A2 sheet and everyone filled the sheets with positive comments about the relevant person. When confronted with these, I suffered a severe case of writer's block, and went away to pack my case before returning brimming with ideas. I was the last to finish writing at 5-something; Anita, who was reading through the comments, looked at me and declared, rightly, that I needed some rest.
I got up again at 7-something after not much more than an hour's sleep, and was showered and dressed in just enough time to say goodbye to Swedish Natasja and Danish Sali, who were leaving very early. The rest of the morning was a blur of half-hearted attempts at clearing up, two half-breakfasts, setting my room to rights, and goodbye hugs. I collected my comment sheet and pleased to be a ‘really English gentleman' (its official: London accents are ‘great') but worried for the sanity of those that thought I had a good sense of humour.
A large group of us travelled back towards Amsterdam together, exchanging many more hugs as we variously headed for the airport, the airport hotel and the city centre. Icelandic Guðbjörg couldn't find her ticket when the inspector came round; she stammered severely and escaped a fine...
Swedish Robert and I had time for a late lunch at the airport before my flight home. After this last goodbye I felt rather lonely. It was very hard to believe that I hadn't met any of the other delegates only six days earlier. I consoled myself with plotting how I'd tell my work colleagues about ‘doing lunch' with a Scandinavian blond…
Conclusion ( Rezina )
After taking part in the workshops, talking to other young people and workshop leaders I discovered that on a basic level our emotions and reactions connected to our stuttering was the same - such as fear, shame and social embarrassment. A lot of people I have found have been on conventional speech therapies involving block modyfication and desensitisation.
Like myself many people in the Netherlands and other European countries have gone through therapies similar to the StarFish and the McGuire technique, the reaction to these techniques were varied. Others like myself used something similar to the Thought Field Therapy ( TFT) created in the states by Dr. Roger Callahan to deal with anxieties and phobia derived from the principles of meridian points in acupuncture - a few people found this to be very helpful used with positive thinking and affirmatives. Although Neouro Liguistic Programming ( NLP ) is still new in the treatment of stammering many people have undergone through their own NLP self therapy using other methods such as psychotherapy, positive thinking, self analysis. These are the people I noticed who can cope well with their speech.
So after a lot of discussions on conventional speech therapies, alternative therapy techniques and mind/body techniques it has been confirmed for me in my own self discovery that a lot of consistent positive thinking helps us deal with and overcome our fears and anxieties associated with stammering. Everyone was very open, exchanging views and sharing personal stories.
For the first time I really set my self free sharing my own shameful, resentful and embarrassing experiences of my stammer with people who were understanding and deeply empathising. I have made many good friends at the conference and exchanged e-mails and phone numbers. Now I know if ever I feel down or need positive encouragements all I have to do is log on to the net. For me it was a very positive learning experience, extremely fun and enjoyable. It is a journey which I will remember for the rest of my life. I came back to England with the view of re-joining my local self help group and working on my presentation and public speaking skills armed with encouragement from Edwin Farr the ELSA leader/organiser.
A lot of the European young people left with the intention of starting their own self help group in their country if it did not already have one or in some way get involved with their national stuttering association. But best of all everyone reached out and made friends across the borders.
We arrived as strangers,
Brought together only by a shared gift
Of silent words, unspoken words
That only you and I can understand.
And when we met
These dormant words awoke,
And what they spoke
Only you and I can understand.
The world remains the same
As what it was before we met,
But we have changed,
And only you and I can understand.
We arrived as strangers,
We departed as family,
Sharing so much more than only a gift,
Only you and I can understand.
Not a family bound by blood,
But a family bound by memories.
Blood is thicker than water,
But memories are thicker than blood.
Only you and I will understand.
An Organiser's perspective (Edwin Farr)
The fourth ELSA meeting was conceived after the 3rd in Sweden 2000 but it took a long time to get of the ground. It is now over a year since I discussed the proposed format with Konrad and Anita and then put pen to paper on the funding application. "How can we repeat the success of 2000?" we said. Well we need not have worried.
All ELSA's Youth meetings have had a similar format; we have stuck to that format because it works. It always works because we have been lucky to have such quality caring and sensitive people attend. The format is designed to bring young pws together, these are the people who could be the future management boards of the national stuttering associations, and these are the people who we consider need to be developed to play a major role in their association.We felt that if we enabled them to network early in their life then it would auger well for future exchange and partnerships. The people who came to Nijmegen were tolerant and were willing to meet and learn from their fellow pws and the organisers.
They came as equals and all left as winners. They came to the meetings on the Sunday apprehensive because most of them didn't know anybody and for the majority they left on the Saturday having made friends and contacts for life. As an organiser to see this transformation and to see the friendships and partnerships develop and flourish is almost a “wonder of the world” and I count myself lucky that I witnessed this very human phenomenon.