|About the Author: Kunal Mahajan has worked in the investment banking industry for 11 years within the Leveraged Finance sector. He is a Vice President at Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation (SMBC) in the Sponsors Finance Group. Kunal established the first disability-related network at SMBC, UNIQUE, in June 2019.As a child growing up, Kunal began stuttering at the age of three and continued to stutter throughout his life. While he spent his whole life feeling insecure about his stutter and struggled accepting his stuttering disability in the workplace, Kunal was finally able to gain acceptance of his stutter in July 2017.
Kunal is a Toastmaster champion, a tour guide at Carnegie Hall, an assistant coach at the Dale Carnegie Leadership Program, received his Mental Health First Aid Certification from the National Council for Behavioral Health, and is currently training to receive his Social & Emotional Intelligence Coaching License from the Institute for Social and Emotional Intelligence. He can be found doing improv at various venues around NYC and serves as a Disabilities Advocacy speaker in the community.
He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Finance at the University of Maryland and resides in New York City.
Shame, depression, guilt. Feelings that are all too common and openly discussed at any National Stuttering Association support group meeting. Growing up getting made fun of due to our stutter, getting passed up for jobs and promotions due to people not understanding that our stutter does not make us incapable, and most importantly, not being able to ever accept ourselves because of our stutter. This has been not only my own experience with my stutter, but also the experience of hundreds of others who stutter who I have crossed paths within the stuttering community and who have shared their experiences with me. The feelings of embarrassment and guilt for not being able to speak fluently when talking on the phone or while giving a presentation and the worries that people are judging us at those moments is what leads many of us in the stuttering community to fall into depression. However, what actually starts to happen when we do start to focus our time on speaking more and speaking up?
It should be no surprise to hear that we start to grow when we do start speaking more. Just like anything else in life, the more you start doing something, the better you become at that particular thing. For example, the more we start going to the gym, the more weight we lose and muscle we are able to build. The more we read, the better our comprehension becomes and the more knowledge we are able to build. Speaking is no different as the more public speaking we do and the more we start speaking up for what we believe in, the more confident we become in ourselves. Notice I did not say “the less we stutter” or “the more fluent we become,” but I said “the more confident we become in ourselves.” This is a critical point as many of us in the stuttering community chase fluency, which is a situation that sets us up for failure as we have seen the research that shows most of us will stutter for the rest of our lives no matter what we do. It took me 31 years to finally accept my stutter and understand myself that speaking up and speaking more was the most important thing for a person who stutters to do to live a fulfilling life. My journey of coming to this realization is what has made me become a powerful public speaker and a leader in the disabilities advocacy world.
While I have been involved in the stuttering community my whole life, it was my experiences at two in-patient intensive stuttering clinics, Eastern Washington University’s SSMP Program and Idaho State University’s Northwest Center for Fluency Disorders Interprofessional Intensive Stuttering Clinic (NWCFD-IISC), that I went to for a month in July 2017 that gave me a very important realization. Most people do not care whether I stutter or not, however, they do care about the strength of my communication skills. Many of you, people who stutter, out there may be questioning whether this is true because of some of the discrimination you may have faced in your own lives. I do not doubt that you have faced those experiences and can attest to many of those experiences as I too have experienced countless discriminatory experiences from people within society and previous employers. However, the hundreds of surveys that I was able to do at these clinics with random strangers helped me to confirm this thesis about the strength of our communication skills being what people latch onto as opposed to our stutter. “Excuse me, my name is Kunal and I am a person who stutters. I am doing a survey for my speech therapy clinic and wanted to ask you a few questions. Do you know someone who stutters? What do you think of their stutter? What do you think causes their stutter? Do you think there are any jobs that someone who stutters cannot do? What advice would you give someone who stutters?” These surveys were very powerful because it allowed me to show myself that I can openly disclose to someone that I am a person who stutters and they would not have the negative response that I always believed they would. Being able to educate these people about stuttering was also very empowering as they were genuinely appreciative of the information I was providing them and it felt enlightening to be able to educate these people on something that I had wished for so many years that they knew about. Also, after hearing each person tell me time and time again that they are not bothered by a person’s stutter and that they believe there is no job that a person who stutters cannot do, I started to accept that maybe the limitation of my own stutter was more in my head as opposed to an actual limitation set by others. The initial surveys I did I was very shy and insecure about them, however, the more surveys I did, the more confident I became, and I noticed that people began to respond more positively to me. That is when I started to see that people were responding to my improved communication skills.
The realization that it was my poor communication skills and not my stutter that was holding me back set me on a growth journey that I have never looked back on since. I immediately joined Toastmasters, a public speaking club, once I got back from the clinics. While at first I was trying to just get through the speeches with my stutter, I eventually transitioned to actually giving speeches usuing the strong communication skills that I learned in Toastmasters such as eye contact, body language, vocal variety, and delivering speeches that had strong speech structure to achieve my desired objective whether it was an inspirational speech or a persuasive speech. The more speeches I gave the more my presentation skills started to improve to the point that I started winning the best speech award at our club meetings. Before I knew it, I was competing in the Toastmasters International Speech Contest and found myself winning 1st place in the club contest, then 1st in the area contest, and finished 3rd place in division contest. I have genuinely learned to enjoy public speaking now and speaking in front of large audiences because I am able to get my messages across to large audiences and have an impact on them. Most importantly, I have been able to recognize that I have achieved all of this success while still stuttering and my stutter has not impacted my ability to become a strong public speaker or a strong communicator.
Toastmasters Club was just the beginning of my public speaking journey. I wanted to continue to challenge myself and further develop my speaking so I became a volunteer Tour Guide at Carnegie Hall where I give tours every week. I followed that experience by entering the Dale Carnegie Program to learn how to become an effective public speaker and have taken various public speaking classes to further enhance this skill. I now know that it is the consistent practice that develops a confident public speaker and I genuinely enjoy speaking now.
Growth by speaking is not just about improving our public speaking and communication skills. It also has to do with speaking up for what we believe in. I have been able to become a leader in the disabilities advocacy world because I was able to finally speak up after holding back my words for so long. After spending one year at my current employer, Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation (SMBC), I reached out to the Inclusion and Diversity team in HR and asked them if I could organize a mock interview event for the stuttering community at SMBC. Why? I realized that I needed to take action by holding an event that would enable the stuttering community to help them gain acceptance of their stutter and get over their fear of interviews and that I needed to educate my colleagues about this disability that they might not have be aware of. I shared my stuttering journey with 30 members of senior management who volunteered to serve as mock interviewers and educated them all about stuttering and the challenges people who stutter face. I watched them give people who stutter interviews and it was a life- changing experience for them — to have an organization that truly understood what they were going through and accepted them with this stutter and for my fellow employees who never have had a chance to learn this in depth about a disability or have an impact on a disability community before either.
This event was so powerful that I realized I needed to speak up again and launch a disabilities network at SMBC. I needed to do this for all of the other people with disabilities out there who might not have anywhere to get support for their disability and for our employees who have never been given an opportunity to learn about these disabilities. On June 5, 2019, with the full firm’s support behind me, we launched a disability-focused Enterprise Resource Group called UNIQUE. Our mission was to create a more emotionally intelligent culture at SMBC and to better integrate the disabilities population into the firm through building awareness, support programs, and advocating for the people with disabilities. We welcomed more than 100 employees to this standing-room only launch event. It had such a huge impact on the employees at SMBC that several of them trusted me enough to open up and candidly share their disability with me as well as the challenges that they have faced on a daily basis. We now have more than 40 employees who have joined UNIQUE to help me to lead this effort for the firm; many of which are allies. We have a number of events scheduled such as mental health workshops, disabilities awareness and etiquette training for the staff, and guided mindfulness workshops. These learning events are focused on topics such as empathy to educate employees on disabilities to create a culture that is accepting to our disabled employee population. Three months later, I held a meeting with our CEO to discuss the challenges our employee disability population faces to feel successfully integrated into the firm’s culture and that we needed his support to help us to drive the initiative forward. Needless to say he was more than willing to do so and was very understanding of the situation.
No one will ever say that people who stutter have it easy or that the disabilities population do not face several challenges for them to overcome in our society and the workplace. However, we must take the action to speak up if we ever want to grow ourselves or the movements that we believe in. A person who stutters will find it incredibly difficult to obtain the confidence skills, public speaking skills, or self-acceptance unless they start to challenge themselves and dedicate time to working on these skill sets. We also cannot expect the business world to have a full understanding of stuttering and the challenges people who stutter face and others with disabilities face throughout their whole lives unless we speak up. The onus is on us to raise our voices to the highest levels of senior management and human resources and tell them what we are experiencing and how the institution needs to evolve to support our disability community that is very critical to the success of the organization. Every firm wants to support its people and bring out the best in them – we are experts at our disabilities and our institutions will thank us for showing the courage and passion to educate them for the greater good of our community. We ALL must start speaking up TODAY and not only will we be providing ourselves growth in our confidence and advocacy journeys, but we will be changing the lives of those around us and have a priceless impact on the organizations we work for that they will never forget.
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