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Stuttering and your career

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This article appeared in the Winter 2009 issue of the CSA Newsletter.

As people who stutter, we face challenges in the community, and in our careers. This article highlights presentations by five panelists at a Stuttering and Your Career workshop at the CSA national stuttering conference in Toronto on August 16-19, 2007. The workshop, chaired by Thomas Klassen, was held on Saturday, August 18, 2007.

The first speaker, Carolina Ayala, is a graduate from York University’s M.A. program in Critical Disability Studies who works at Community Living Toronto as a support worker. In her presentation, she recalled an experience that had strongly affected her, as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto. She had applied to volunteer at an agency that helps people with communication disorders. Following an interview for the position, a volunteer coordinator had said to her, “You stutter. How would you help someone to speak better?”

Putting aside her dream of becoming a speech therapist, Carolina enrolled at the Developmental Services Worker program at Loyalist College in Belleville, and found work in that field. Seeking to try out other jobs in her field, some years later she applied for varied openings, but did not get past the interviews. She subsequently gained admission to a graduate program at York University. “It’s been an amazing experience of learning and sharing,” said Carolina, “ and I’m just so happy for my education.”

Mark Doering, an account executive with Formcor, a print management and communications company in Mississauga, began speech therapy when he was very young using a technique called Smoothing Out. At work, he generates new business for his company by cold calling new accounts. As a child growing up, he hated using the phone. “It still blows my mind that today I’m someone who’s on the phone at least 30 or 40 times a day.”

“Our company,” said Mark, “is a family business and I’m lucky to be working with my father.” Years ago, his dad – “he wasn’t being malicious or harsh with me” – warned Mark that if he stuttered, people might not think that he was telling the truth, or wasn’t confident. “That comment, at the beginning of my career – it really stuck in my mind, and I do my best when I’m at work.” Mark feels he’s come a long way, and his career has been a huge part of this. “Stuttering is something that all of us will have forever. But that shouldn’t hold you back from what you want to do.”

Mohamed Camara, a finance audit manager at CIBC, started his career in France where he was born. School had been a difficult time, mostly because of the humiliations and embarrassing situations. After graduation, he found a job as a financial consultant at an auditing firm where he focused on the avoidance of speaking situations. In his second year, he was offered a promotion, which he declined. “I resigned, because I was afraid to accept that job and speak in front of large groups.”

He found himself almost a year later working in a parking lot. One day, he met a friend who was still employed at Mohamed’s former workplace. They met when the friend came to park his car: “It was a very sad day.” He sat down and thought about his situation. He resolved to do his best to improve his speech, and to have a better attitude. He left France and started anew in Canada.

“I still stutter,” Mohamed said, “but I’m much better today than before. Some days at work are excellent. I can speak in front of an audience. Some other days are a little bit difficult. But the main difference is today I speak more openly to my friends, at work, to my boss, with no problems at all.”

Sadia Khan is a Grade 3 teacher with the Peel District School Board. It took her many years to realize her dream of working as a teacher. Born in Pakistan, she was three years old when she came to Canada. She remembers holding her first pencil with her left hand. “My father, with the beliefs he had, did not want me to write with my left hand, so quickly, I began writing with my right. I always believed that was the cause of my stuttering.” She later came to realize that her father had just done the best he could, based on what he knew at the time.

In high school, a guidance counsellor told her not to seek a career as a teacher, as she would not be a good role model. Her biggest supporter at that time was her mom. “She always said I could do anything I wanted but that I was holding myself back.” Sadia came to realize her potential after many years – after speech therapy at an intensive speech therapy program in Hamilton, modification of her self-talk, and learning to breathe in a way that enhances fluency.

With her mother’s support, she decided to complete her training in Early Childhood Education, enabling her to teach kindergarten. Her husband is among her biggest supporters now. He gave her confidence to continue on with her education and pursue her dream of teaching in the primary grades. She now teaches grade 3. Sadia did an eight-minute live radio interview for the CBC Metro Morning show on August 16, 2007: You can also find it on the web by pointing your browser to “CBC Metro Morning Sadia Khan.”

Vladimir Bondarenko, a Toronto-based documentary filmmaker, acting coach, and grief counsellor, had a mild to moderate stutter growing up. His outlet was listening to rock and roll music. Rave On, a song by Buddy Holly, had a profound impact on Vladimir, who noted that the singer “hiccupped and stuttered his way to fame.” Vladimir formed a rock and roll band, and singing, acting, and music became “my solace, my outlet.”

After high school, when he decided to become a teacher, his childhood fear of stuttering came back. At times he did stutter in front of his students, “and the kids would say, ‘What’s going on with our teacher?’” On those occasions, Vladimir shared his history of stuttering. He told his students about how he’d hidden behind rock and roll.

The self-disclosure “was the best thing I could’ve done – because I think the main problem is that we sweep it underneath the carpet, and that’s the crux of the problem. We have to bring it out into the open, which we’re doing, in conferences like this [one].”

He taught for junior high school for six years, and then became a professional actor. He still carried a fear that he would stutter. To deal with that, some of the characters that he played were portrayed as having a stutter. The director would say, “Where’s that in the script?” Vladimir would respond that he was adding a “human dimension” to the character. Eventually, he stopped adding a stutter to characters that he portrayed, and he also left acting, to become a documentary filmmaker. Two of his films, on the topic of stuttering, are Speaking of Courage (starring another panelist, Carolina Ayala), and Voices to Remember.
As a producer, he spent a lot of time on the phone, raising money for his phone. He enjoyed the phone. For some stutterers, the phone is a fearsome instrument but that was not the case for him. Along with filmmaking, Vladinmir now also works as an acting coach, and as a grief counsellor.

The lesson he’s learned about stuttering, over the years, is that it’s given him “greater empathy, and compassion, to work with others, to help others. So while it’s not the focus of my life anymore, it has deepened me. That’s for sure. You feel for others, with different handicaps, and challenges, and disabilities.”

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