Wisdom from the Young and the Disabled: In Conversation with Kavya

This image is of Kavya with cats. Image description: A girl in a red top and blue jeans with light blue shoes is sitting on a green grass, with her face away from her camera, looking down. She has a kitten on her lap who she seems to be petting and a cat sitting next to her looking away from the camera. There’s a tree behind the girl with leaves of it dangling below, perched against a big white wall.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

Hi, I’m Kavya, 20, a student. I spend my days trying to keep up with the college work, napping and tutoring. Nights catching up with my ever growing read and watchlists with a cup of coffee and my cats. I also draw sometimes, or more accurately start a bunch of sketches that I rarely finish. My stammers a part of my life as much as talk is, which is not always a lot. I’m usually a quiet person and don’t talk much, unless with people I’m comfortable with. I speak and sometimes I stammer, or breathe heavy, or rush my words, sometimes i simply pause a lot. And sometimes I don’t stammer at all. We’re like that one on and off couple, me and my stammer.

Yashna: What has been your journey with stammering? What has been not-so supportive and supportive spaces, in the past few years?

I started stammering around 7th 8th grade, until like start of college, I wasn’t taking active role in viewing my stammering on my own terms or whatever. And I never had a huge issue with stammering myself and for some people who notice that I stammer, it’s not a huge issue in actually communicating. People who have different views, I don’t end up speaking around them at all. So I think, the end of school, I had board exams, pretty packed schedule, it felt like I almost really didn’t talk talk in school or at home. There were spaces I was scared of being judged. And then my stammering also increased. I did start speech therapy just as a way to get my mom to leave me alone. That she let me be. So that started and it worked sometimes and sometimes it didn’t work. We were then not in a good financial position so I did not understand seeing someone to improve my talking. So I started questioning that a lot.

I actually would’ve wanted a psychotherapy space for and it was like you taking away that chance. Although I didn’t finish speech therapy, I had left it halfway. It has a very physical approach. So like they teach you these exercises. So I was in first year junior college or something during that time. And we had a lot of presentations, projects and stuff. There were these spaces wherein I was supposed to implement my exercises from speech therapy and it didn’t work. And then after each talk, I would focus on my failure to talk in that way more than focusing on the project itself. So to be able to feel content to master that, I never experienced that. And sometimes, it would work too. But also, I wasn’t completely sure how I felt about it.

I think mostly because my ideas about what stammering is came from media, or people who don’t stammer. Recently, online I researched a lot about communities with people who stammer. Although I haven’t had a chance to meet them offline. But I discovered that there are lots of types of stammering and there are people who stammer like me, on and off. There are people who stammered late in life, which I didn’t think of before. So that has been great.

Yashna: You said you started to question the support that you were receiving? What in particular did you start questioning about it?

So my speech therapist was really nice, she was never like, “How dare you stammer after all this?” – she allowed me to stammer but also like her conclusions would always be that eventually you do get better. Eventually you’ll talk typically. Of course she was just doing her job. And a lot of it was also helpful.

However, it reinforced a lot of things because even if I don’t think about stammering itself, this idea of speaking “normally” or fluently, is soo flawed. It’s always like you should know English or have a certain vocabulary and if you’re able to do these talks, be a public speaker and that’s something most people aspire to do and end up doing – doing a public talk or whatever. So I started questioning that. Would that really be something I should work towards or should I focus on some other areas? It doesn’t really affect me a lot when I’m with people who are okay with it. So my conclusion was that there’s stigma around it which was causing most of the discomfort. So I quit speech therapy and I had started to see a therapist by then. Before joining speech therapy, I had come across this article which had experiences from people who stammer and they were adult people who stammer, which I read and I was like I didn’t even know that you can be an adult and still stammer. I didn’t even think that was an option – to be an adult and stammer. That you don’t have to change your way of speaking.

Yashna: What are some of things that started changing when you started questioning the idea, the stigma around stammering? How did you respond to this change?

Back in school I was into drama and poetry and stuff like that. And that completely changed when my stammering started. So I started actively avoiding such spaces, even speaking up in classroom. And even answer in a class or something. I also have anxiety and sometimes it’s sort of a mess because the stigma that surrounds the stammer, that’s there all the time. So if I still sort of imagine myself in a public speaking situation, I think mostly I would start just by doing what I call a “coming out” of sorts, where I would tell the audience that I might end up stammering, so be prepared for that. Because when I would do projects in my class, what bothers me is the facial expressions of the audience, the discomfort in their face and it’s really hard because I understand but also it’s not great! Sometimes when my stammer is really bad right, I do take up a lot of time to finish even just a few sentences. It feels like sort of a burden or something that the audience has to sit through. And of course I’ve known these immediate responses of people. And then I also feel, why should I be made to feel all this? Me and people speaking like me, taking up the space unapologetically should be the norm.

For starters it gave some motivation to talk in the class, to gradually normalize it in my head. Some of the teachers, friends have been really supportive. I would get time extensions from teachers for my presentation time in the class. And the best sort of reaction I used to hope for is to let me finish, let me talk because sometimes people try to finish my sentences. And I understand that they may see the discomfort I am in so to help me they would…sometimes a few of them suggested that would I like to write stuff down instead. Which…I mean, I love writing and I don’t mind but also it became about I couldn’t speak according to them, right? Sometimes they would be like, oh you don’t have to complete which is again not what the point is right? So I think the best audience were the ones who would just act as if it was another student, you know?

What have been some of the little things, people, you mentioned communities, realizations you come back to have supported you all along?

I spoke about how it should already be normalized and we shouldn’t have to do the work. I come back to that so much because the act of stammering itself, it’s not uniform. I know people who stammer more. When I think about them in schools or growing up in education system, all the work that they’ve had to do and I can’t imagine how much more that would be for so many kids. What bugs me the most is that they would automatically form these ideas about normal speech and again that influences them to go for speech therapy and not something that they would do if not for these ideas. So many people don’t even know that they have an option of not going into such correction methods because it’s such a conditioned idea in them. One of the things that helped me is being a part of the queer community. Both people who stammer and the queer community are sort of marginalized communities, our experiences not normalized. But both these communities stand for being different and that has a different sort of power in itself. That these are communities who are able to imagine a world for all and continue to be who they are despite the sort of the world that they have to live in. That resonates with these both identities of mine. That is a sense of safety and comfort that I don’t have in typical spaces. Both these parts of my life end up inspiring the other sometimes.

I havent always been very active in either communities. Only recently I’ve started to open myself to these possibilities. Most of my earlier years were spent in trying to make life easier for people around me, to conform to their ways of expressing. So on the best days, and both of these spaces have such great online communities that the best thing is that you don’t have to be…I am not out to everyone I know and especially in the family and yet I do definitely feel a part of the community. I think on my best days, both of these communities give me a sense of hope. People still live in societies that aren’t best places to live in and yet people go on with so much resilience and that feeling is great to be able to have. And especially adult stammerers are so rare to come across, I think. That does give me a sense of hope, just to know that there are people who don’t end up conforming. Ya, somedays are really hard.

I am still trying to unlearn, right? But in some situations, it’s really hard to hold on to what your values are. You end up wishing to listen to more stories like yours, that makes things so much more easier. But I think, at the end of the day, I’m glad to be a part of both communities.

Yashna: What does then holding on to hope or just holding on look like to you?

It’s a difficult time to visualize hope actually. I remember the letter of hope we did during AI Project, right? And even then it was hard to do it, to visualize hope. But I do hope for a better society of course, I have to. Recently, I’ve found being hopeful to be much more impressive and radical than to be sort of like a cynic, which I kinda used to be. Hope is in some ways very closely related to resilience and I’ve found myself much more willing and motivated to grow, learn and work to make the spaces I tread in better spaces when I’m hopeful. 

It’s still hard. To visualize hope, I do lean on to other people, some other spaces. Our project is one of the spaces I hold on to. That gave me so much hope of being around people who share the same values and hope for the same things. When I interact with other people in the communities, those tiny moments. I’ve ended up meeting people who would not mind my stammer at all which was very rare. One of these meetings, I stammered and I apologized which was my automated response and they were like, “no you don’t have to”. And I haven’t really heard that so explicitly from complete strangers. So, little moments like these. Finding your people, your tribe, whatever you call it, goes a long way. And the hope of someday living among them and bumping into them more of a regular thing than just a rarity and living in a world that’s more open to differences.

It just reminds me of our times together and it’s striking how being around people who share the same values as you, how that can mean a lot to all of us. I know that there are people who share same values and hopes but how difficult sometimes it is to meet them. I hope meetings with such people happen more often so we can build a better world. When exclusion happens in the world, it somehow is implied that those excluded people somewhere form a little community that holds on to the opposite values that exclusion was based upon. something like a counterculture. And that itself is such a hopeful thought. And throughout histories there have been communities, right? Like the neurodivergent movement, queer movement and hearing stories of these and adjacent communities have helped me figure out my identity, values.

I am in third-year Psychology graduation and we have this subject called abnormal psychology, knowing of the DSM stuff like that, which has the stammering, stuttering disorder. From the start, there have been a group of people who take it upon themselves to define what disorders are, label them and it bothers me. I know that there are counsellors who don’t think strictly in those pathological terms but when I have casual conversations with friends, it’s so ingrained in us that there are these disorders one has to cure. And so much diversity gets dismissed. Which means the profession needs more people like us be a part of it and change it in small ways. 

Yashna Vishwanathan is a Therapist and Trainer at Ummeed Child Development Center and she works with children and young adults experiencing or at risk of disabilities and their families.

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