Delhi-based standup comedian Pooja Vijay is in a profession that requires her to entertain people by talking. Here's one of the jokes with which she begins her show:
"When you have a stutter, there are some good things and bad. A good thing is that when I have to perform a 10-minute show, I just need to make jokes for 5 minutes and the stuttering takes care of the rest. A bad thing is that whenever I try to play Kabaddi, by the time I get through the K-K-K, I just sound like I'm doing a bad impression of Shah Rukh Khan."
The 27-year-old has had a stutter ever since she can remember. Scientists are yet to figure out why exactly stammering or stuttering occurs, but believe that the speech impediment could be caused by a combination of factors ranging from family history to how the brain is wired for speech.
33-year-old Prashant*, who currently teaches at an American university, and 23-year-old Sheetal, who works for an MNC in Mumbai, are also people who grew up with a stammering problem. All three are confident speakers as adults. Their lives show that with therapy, a supportive environment and self-belief, a stammer needn't stand in anyone's way from achieving what they wish to in life.
"All my close friends and family were always very supportive about my stammering and never made me feel weird about it. Occasionally other students would make fun of the stammer while I was growing up, but this stopped after I grew older to about 16-17 years of age," Pooja says.
Prashant recalls stammering a lot when he was in Class 2. In school, he once wrote "I stammer" as a response to an exercise that asked him to list his weaknesses. Prashant's mother was saddened when she found out although he says he'd written it in quite a matter-of-fact fashion.
"I went for speech therapy for a while and then my father did some home training. I don't particularly remember why I stopped stammering. I still occasionally do, even though I give a lot of public talks these days. But I am not ashamed or nervous when that happens. It is simply a biological response and I find some other word to say what I wanted to say," Prashant says, adding that he substitutes words with synonyms when he finds it difficult to say something.
Sheetal struggled with her stammer even though it was mild and nobody in school knew about it. "It does take a toll on your confidence and you think twice before speaking," she says.
Like Prashant, Pooja and Sheetal, too had speech therapy when they were children and believe that the tips and exercises given by the therapists helped.
Pooja says, "I couldn't form a single sentence without stammering earlier. Nowadays in conversations, people barely notice that I have a stutter. However, it did not completely take away the stammering. I tend to stutter more when I have to do public speaking or my comedy shows and people notice it more then."
A lot of people are surprised by Pooja's choice of profession when they come to know about her stutter. They even come up to her and tell her that she should "fix" the problem. But although Pooja acknowledges that she feels bad about her stutter at times, she has never let it stop her from participating in public speaking, debating and now standup comedy.
"I don't think I am confident about the stuttering per se, but I do think I am confident as a person to put myself out there with the stuttering. I don't see it as a barrier in my life," smiles Pooja.
*Names changed on request