The freedom to speak

ISTAR helped Shelli Teshima overcome her stutter and go on to help others
By Matt Rea on August 30, 2018
 

In a past life, Shelli Teshima lived script-to-script. It went something like this.

Parked outside a coffee shop, rehearsing for a performance doomed to fail, Teshima would prepare to meet someone for coffee. She’d practise the words, speaking slowly and deliberately: “I’ll have a medium coffee, please.” She’d consider her introduction — the sounds needed to say her name, the words required for pleasantries and small talk. Over and over she would repeat her script, building confidence with each fluent word until she was ready to move from her car to the coffee shop — from practice to performance. And then it would crumble. In the café, her stutter would steal the show. Waiting in line, her anxiety would grow. By the time she got to the front panic would have set in. She would open her mouth ... but nothing came out.

“That is how fragile I was,” Teshima, ’99 BA, ’01 MScSLP, explains, chatting casually about her past over a cup of coffee.

For much of her life, a debilitating stutter restricted Teshima’s ability to express herself. It was only after intensive therapy at the Institute for Stuttering Treatment and Research (ISTAR) at the University of Alberta that she learned to manage her stutter and speak fluently.

For Teshima, speaking is now effortless. She is expressive, chatty, friendly. She talks about her path to becoming a speech-language pathologist. How help from a kind and patient speech therapist when she was seven inspired her to pursue the same career. How driven she was in high school, determined to earn the grades needed to be accepted into a speech-language pathology program in university. Conversing with her, it’s hard to imagine she was once at the mercy of her stutter — that someone who has achieved so much had to work so hard to do something most found so simple: speak.

Like many of the roughly 290,000 Canadians who stutter, Teshima spent her childhood and teenage years struggling to speak. In school, she shied from raising her hand and dreaded being called on by teachers. Kids teased her when she tripped over words. By the time she was in high school, she developed selective mutism, a social anxiety that kept her from speaking in certain situations. At some point it became easier to let others speak for her.

“I was not a typical teenager by any means,” she says upon reflection. “I was functioning, but I wouldn’t say I was coping.”


After spending her life trying to adjust to a world where she had others speak for her, Teshima decided she had to try to speak for herself.


A turning point came when she was 17 at an event where friends had to speak publicly. Watching her friends give speeches, Teshima realized that as long as she stuttered, she would be held back. Anything that required clear and consistent conversation — from public speaking to talking on the phone — was something she could not even attempt. Coincidentally, she had heard about ISTAR: a self-funded, donor-supported institute within the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine that offers specialized treatment to children, teens and adults who stutter.

After spending her life trying to adjust to a world where she had others speak for her, Teshima decided she had to try to speak for herself. She packed her things, left her home in British Columbia and headed to ISTAR.

On a flickering screen, playback from a VHS tape shows Teshima, then 17, in front of a white backdrop in a small room. She sits cautiously. Her pursed lips, lowered head and heavy breathing betray her attempt at a brave face for her first day at ISTAR. Without context you’d think you were watching a nervous suspect about to confess at an interrogation. As the tape rolls, a voice off-camera asks Teshima to say her name. With a deep breath and a nod she says “OK” but as she begins to say her name it appears as though the tape has malfunctioned and got caught in a loop. Unable to get past the first two letters of her name, for five long seconds her voice stalls on the shhh sound, like air leaking from a punctured hose.

Fear and anxiety were barriers preventing Teshima from speaking fluently. Though she tackled exercises at ISTAR with the same tenacity as she had her school work, therapy was difficult. For three weeks she watched as other clients progressed toward fluency while she continued to struggle. Though she worked tirelessly to learn the techniques her therapists taught her, she didn’t see an improvement.

At the end of every three-week session, each ISTAR client gives a final speech to demonstrate their progress. Teshima tried but couldn’t get through her speech. It was the last straw. Exhausted and homesick, she was ready to go back to B.C. As she said her farewells, Einer Boberg, ISTAR’s founder and executive director at the time, took her aside and confessed that, like her, he had struggled with a stutter and that it had taken him a long time to overcome it. He believed that she could, too. It was a kind gesture, a few simple words, but it gave her confidence and that made all the difference.

Teshima went home disappointed but not defeated. Armed with speech exercises from ISTAR, she practised with monastic rigour. What took some ISTAR clients a few weeks of intensive therapy took Teshima months, but she remained undeterred. As speaking became easier, her confidence grew until one day, while sitting in a university lecture hall studying to become a speech-language pathologist herself, something happened that had never happened before. She spoke in class, unprompted, without a stutter.

“The professor was looking for a page in the textbook and I just happened to be on it so, without thinking, I said, ‘Oh, it’s page 74,’” Teshima recalls. “And immediately I turned around to see who spoke, because I never thought I could do that.”

Now she lives and speaks unscripted. She still practises exercises she learned at ISTAR to maintain her fluency but she does so happily. Twenty-four years after coming to ISTAR as a scared teenager who couldn’t say her own name, Teshima helps children speak as a professional speech-language pathologist.

“ISTAR has given me a voice,” she says. “They gave me the tools so I can talk — so I can share my story.”

Watch how ISTAR helps give clients the freedom to speak


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