I am Shilpa Sagwal from India and I am 30 years old. I am an engineer by education and a person who stammers. I am one of the national coordinators for The Indian Stammering Association (TISA) and core team member for IWWS (Indian Women who Stammer) group. I am also involved with 50 million voices as one of the leaders from India. I like to go for long walks and also practice Yoga and meditation.
Being a person who stammers (PWS) and a woman alongside it, was never an easy task. I realized this more and more as I was growing up, when I would find myself in social settings where my speech became a measure of my intellect. My personality was gauged under the lens of my speech and it was declared that I might not be able to succeed owing to few bumps and pauses I make and take while speaking to an unknown audience and some judgmental close relatives. My family’s desperate attempts to ‘correct’ my speech with whatever therapists/doctors they could find in a small town in Haryana, India were failing. I was growing, jumping from middle school to high school with no sign of a smooth speech. And soon, the dreaded time came when I was about to join college. I remember I could not sleep few nights leading up to my first day at college thinking about all the ways I will be making myself a fool, unable to say my name, or which course I chose to study, or where I am from. With no relief in sight, I adopted a method of ‘staying as quiet as possible’ during the conversations, and laugh it off whenever a pause/block comes. This technique worked for whole 4 years of my undergraduate college. Without making much noise in the young adult circle of mine, I graduated and moved on with whatever self confidence (almost zero) I gained during my education.
However, when I was provided with an opportunity to study my Master’s in a different city, far away from my hometown, I did not budge. I took it and it was 2013 onwards that I have seen what it is like to live a life, not just survive. New college, new city, new friends who did not speak the same language as mine, I found my solace in them. And with a stroke of luck, I got connected to TISA (The Indian Stammering Association) and I still believe my life changed afterwards. I got to meet my tribe in a new city and I felt at home. The weekly meetings on Sundays became my abode. I made some wonderful connections which I still cherish. I attended national conference organized by TISA, met nearly 100-150 people who stammers at a single place for the first time in the beautiful scenery of Lonavala. The connections kept growing even after the conference and little did I know, it was just a start.
I still remember the 2014 evening, when Pamela Mertz and myself were recording a podcast for her ‘women who stutter-our stories’ series. I got to know Pam a bit more through that conversation. It was my first time talking on a podcast ever, and being invited by Pam was an honor. Sitting in my dormitory’s room at my college hostel, I remember being so content and happy after the podcast recording. I was glad I came out of my shell and started talking about my speech, which, once upon a time, I would not dare, at all.
When I opened up to people about my vulnerabilities, they connected to me. This is a mantra, for me, to have some real, soul-soothing, heart wrenching, emotional conversations. For me, there was nothing to hide. I started talking about my speech more and more as it freed me, and it was a wonderful way to create awareness among people about stammering, which is a topic almost ignored or shushed in conversations I had regarding disabilities.
I was blessed to having completed my Master’s with top of the class distinction, having grabbed a job soon afterwards, having successful in rising up the corporate ladder in my 6 years of work experience. Not once I backed from a conversation involving my speech and I found my self confidence rising up with every such conversation.
International connections are a wonderful thing- Helen Carpenter
Little did I know, it would shape my journey in stammering awareness in the coming years, when I was introduced by lovely Pamela Mertz, to Iain Wilkie and hence, to 50 million voices. Fast forward to 5 years, and I was the representative from India, and one of the leaders for 50millionvoices. It is a global initiative seeking to transform the world of work for people who stammer – and for employers and society too. A very practical and fruitful program that it has been running are practice interviews for people who stammer, with real-life HR recruiters (who may or may not stammer) from some of the big corporates we know of. In the last practice interview event, a total of 102 people from 9 countries were involved There were 69 one-to-one interviews, including confidential individual feedback for interviewees and interviewers. The event turned out to be a great ice-breaker for many participating PWS, as a few of them were fresh out of college and it was a ‘practice’ for them for future job interviews. I, myself, had filed an application to be an interviewee. Out of my 2 interviews, one was with the Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) leaders working for a firm in UK. Another was with a BBC presenter and a fellow PWS. These 2 conversations ran for about an hour each and I received great insights about my CV and moves for a career change. The whole event provided me a bunch of meaningful and applicable advice on my career and connections for lifetime.
I still recall, very often, what my one leap of faith did to me and my life – my one act of courage to move to a different city, to join a self -help group, to open up about my vulnerabilities instead of hiding them improved my personality and had a tangible effect on my life in a wonderful way. These leaps, however small, will change a course in our lives whose impact we will be cherishing in years to come. So, I will be signing off by pouring off my one advice – you won’t regret taking that one leap of faith!
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