Despite knowing the answers, Rhea Bhalla never put up her hand in class. The thought of stuttering in front of everyone horrified her.
“Stuttering is a really isolating disorder,” the Calgary teen said on Monday.
Bhalla saw a speech language pathologist in elementary school, but it wasn’t until she went to the University of Alberta’s Institute for Stuttering Treatment and Research (ISTAR) that she really learned the tools she needed to control her stuttering.
But Bhalla was disappointed to find out Calgary didn’t have a support group for people who stutter, so the plucky 14-year-old junior high school student started one this past June.
It’s called the Calgary Stuttering Support Group and meets weekly at the Nose Hill Public Library.
“It’s so important that we try to get out there and advocate for ourselves and just tell the world that we stutter, and that it’s OK that we do,” Bhalla said.
Michael Niven struggled with stuttering as a kid and that continued through law school and into his first job as a lawyer.
“The best analogy I could come up with is that you would rather take a saw and saw off your own head than stand up and try to speak in front of a crowd of any size,” Niven recalled.
“It would be absolutely unthinkable and dreadful.”
At 35 years old, Niven took a three-week intensive treatment program in Edmonton through ISTAR. Part of the treatment included speaking extremely slowly for the entire time.
“At the end of the first few days, to maybe three days, I knew at a deep visceral level that this was going to work for me,” Niven said.
Fast forward 30 years and Niven is now the chair of the ISTAR Foundation and has his stuttering under control, for the most part, through plenty of maintenance work, which is critical because those who stutter are prone to relapse.
“I am not cured,” he said. “It’s like AA (Alcoholics Anonymous). You have got to keep watching it and you have to keep going to meetings.”
The Calgary branch of ISTAR, which is located downtown, takes in people from southern Alberta, B.C. and even other countries for their intensive programs.
Often times therapists are dealing with people who have endured years of discrimination.
“There is the stigma that maybe people aren’t quite as bright,” said Elizabeth Hayes, a speech language pathologist who recently retired from ISTAR. “Unfortunately, I think it’s one of the few issues that people have that still gets laughed at.
“Clients still tell me people laugh at them.”
Experts say it’s often easier to treat stuttering at an early age.
Bhalla said she is happy to support anyone at any age who wants to reach out to her at her weekly meetings.
“It’s just so powerful to know that there are other people out there who face the same challenges as I do,” Bhalla said.
Niven said the best thing a person can do when speaking with someone who stutters is to just listen and try not to fill in the words for that person.
“It’s a hard thing to do, but the best thing you can do is just sit patiently and listen and maintain eye contact,” he advised.
ISTAR is an organization that offers treatment to children, teens and adults who stutter. The organization, which is an institute of the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Alberta, also conducts research into stuttering and promotes public awareness.
ISTAR’s main office is located in Edmonton.
Oct. 22 was designated International Stuttering Awareness Day in 1998.