Speech-language pathology student inspired by ISTAR experience

“Pursuing speech therapy has changed my entire life and given me a purpose to serve those like myself who need support,” says Anushka Sharma.

Shirley Wilfong-Pritchard - 20 May 2024

Anushka Sharma was a trilingual 10-year-old, speaking Hindi, Punjabi and English when her family moved to Canada from India. But by age 11, she started to notice repetitions of some words in her speech. “I did not think anything of it back then because I had supportive friends at school who would patiently wait for me to finish my thought,” she remembers.

As her parents were working much of the time, Sharma’s stuttering disfluency went unnoticed and untreated. When she told them about her experiences with speech, they didn’t understand that issues could begin at any age and thought she just needed to try harder. 

As Sharma got older, communicating with others got progressively harder. Going through high school and the first two years of university as someone who stuttered but didn’t have access to treatment or an adequate support system was extremely difficult. “It reinforced the narrative inside my head of ‘I hate that I can’t control my speech. I’m not good enough and I hate myself.’”

“I would want to talk to people and build connections, but I would be scared of them finding out there was something wrong with my speech,” she says. “When I was brave enough to strike up conversations with my peers and I would start stuttering, I could feel my face getting warm because of the feelings of powerlessness and shame for not being able to control my speech when it was so easy for other people around me to talk a mile a minute. I did not understand what was happening or how to deal with it, so I would just avoid talking altogether.” 

“Eventually I got to a point where it was debilitating; something had to change,” she explains. Having no idea how to pay for speech therapy, Sharma decided to walk to the Institute for Stuttering Treatment and Research and talk about getting treatment. It wasn’t until she had her consultation with one of ISTAR’s speech-language pathologists that she discovered she could apply for financial aid. “It was the best decision I’ve ever made.”

Thanks to ISTAR donors, Sharma was able to receive the specialized treatment she needed. “It became the turning point of my life,” she says. “I learned fluency skills and underwent cognitive-behavioural therapy. It started getting physically easier to talk; I could finally make the tension in my speech muscles go away. And I started opening up about stuttering to my friends and peers, which has led to a good support system for myself. I learned to own my voice and believe that it’s not my fault for having a compromised speech-motor system, despite the internal negative self-perceptions that had been ingrained inside of me from years of struggling alone with it.” 

Sharma became a research assistant and volunteer at ISTAR, where her decision to pursue speech-language pathology as a career solidified. “I met so many amazing clients, heard their unique journeys and shared my own experiences with them,” she says. “It was such a beautiful process to see their before-and-after speech-sample videos and hear their final speeches after treatment. I encountered some individuals who came in feeling powerless or wanting to give up on their dreams, but after the intensive program, they would feel empowered to take on challenges and live their lives in meaningful ways.” 

Sharma recalls providing translation support for a Hindi-speaking family during a children’s intensive program. Their expression of gratitude left her teary-eyed and emotional. “I have had so many experiences at ISTAR with clients and their families that have resonated with me and left a burning desire to keep making a positive difference in their lives.” 

Sharma is now a first-year master of science student in the speech-language pathology program at the University of Alberta Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine. She works as a behavioural interventionist at the Centre for Autism Services Alberta where she is part of an interdisciplinary team to support individuals with speech and motor challenges. She continues to be both a client and a volunteer at ISTAR.

Sharma wants to continue expanding her knowledge of stuttering and is especially interested in fluency and multilingualism. She hopes to provide services in Hindi, Punjabi and English, and to become a fluency course instructor one day. “I have received an overwhelming amount of positive feedback from my classmates about enriching their learning experiences by sharing my own story and speech therapy experiences during class discussions. I would love to incorporate my experiences into the material with other students as well and make the topic of stuttering more meaningful for them.”

“I want to tell my future clients that I know exactly what it’s like to walk in their shoes and I can help them gain their own toolbox of fluency skills. I know it’s not their fault for having a compromised speech-motor system, and I would love to help them see that, so they too can go from ‘I’m not good enough’ to ‘I’m worthy regardless’.”