Overcoming stuttering to command the stage

From struggling with stuttering to becoming an accomplished public speaker, discover how U of A student Jayan Juneja found his voice with the help of ISTAR.

Jennifer Fitzgerald - 20 October 2023

Ask anyone to deliver a speech before an audience of 500, and many might hesitate or decline. For those with a stutter, the challenge could seem insurmountable. Yet, U of A student Jayan Juneja embraced this daunting task with determination thanks to the training and support from the ISTAR Institute of Stuttering Treatment and Research, where he's been equipped with the tools and confidence to seize every chance to express himself. 

As a Faculty of Engineering student, Juneja takes part in countless group projects and must navigate everyday interactions. For people with a stutter it’s also about confronting the reaction from others and the internal voice that tells them they’re different. Many might assume the condition is due to intellectual weakness, however it’s a neurological condition often with genetic factors. With appropriate guidance and resources, many do see a significant improvement.

Stuttering manifests as disruptions in speech, including blocks, repeated or extended sounds, affecting roughly one per cent of Canadians in everyday activities, from ordering coffee to expressing feelings. ISTAR provides customized therapies for individuals of all ages who stutter, leads innovative research and promotes awareness. Located within U of A's Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, ISTAR operates from its centres in Edmonton and Calgary. 

From childhood stutter to new beginnings in Canada

At just four years old, back in his home in India, Juneja's parents first detected his stutter. Doctors and speech pathologists initially reassured his parents he would grow out of it. However, as years passed, despite numerous therapy sessions, the problem persisted.

Moving to Canada added a fresh set of challenges. “As an extrovert, I love to talk and engage in discussions,” he says. “However, stuttering was affecting my confidence, especially in a new country and trying to make new friends. Growing up, there were many instances where being bullied for my stuttering induced my panic attacks.” Juneja became hesitant to initiate conversations with people, and the frustration was palpable. As he remarked, “I like to speak on every topic, but because of my stuttering, I was mostly avoiding speaking at all.”

Finding ISTAR 

Since ISTAR is a fee-for-service clinic, attending was financially challenging for Jayan's family. “In India, my parents exhausted all their savings and took loans to get treatment for my condition.” This is where ICAP (ISTAR Client Assistance Program) stepped in, offering donor funds to support his therapy. This gesture highlights the significance of donors and how their contributions can change lives.

The initial intensive phase at ISTAR was revolutionary for Juneja. After facing one of his toughest phases of stuttering right before joining ISTAR, where he couldn't complete a sentence without stuttering, he noticed significant improvement after the therapy. The results speak for themselves: a vibrant, expressive Juneja who’s more confident conversing in any situation.

Juneja emphasized the importance of daily practice of breathing and speaking techniques, likening the discipline to an athlete's regimen, and ensuring the skills learned at ISTAR become second nature. Juneja finds inspiration in Bollywood star Hrithik Roshan, who overcame severe stuttering and is now one of India's leading actors. “Hrithik practices his speech exercises for 90 minutes every day, and if time allows between studies, I strive to have this level of discipline to make lasting change,” he says.

Juneja’s dedication to his growth is very evident. He meets with his speech therapist, Holly Lomheim, twice a week, rather than the traditional once-a-week sessions most patients prefer. These meetings are not just about practicing speech patterns, but also about exploring the psychological aspects of stuttering.

One of the invaluable aspects at ISTAR is the community it provides. “We have a club where members meet and practice their skills, sharing experiences and supporting one another,” Juneja explains. They not only share techniques but also create an environment of acceptance and understanding.

Factors influencing stuttering

Juneja explained that many factors can worsen stuttering, ranging from physiological to emotional, such as a person's mood, level of stress, environment, and even their physical well-being. “The amount of sleep I’ve had can have an impact on whether I am going to have a good day or a bad day,” he adds. This multifaceted nature of stuttering makes it a challenge that requires varying approaches.

But, more than just therapeutic techniques, ISTAR emphasizes the importance of confronting fears. For Juneja, this meant pushing his boundaries, such as agreeing to speak publicly, a feat he accomplished when he delivered a speech to hundreds of students during a Remembrance Day ceremony last year. He describes getting compliments from friends and teachers that encouraged him to consider the next feats he could conquer. 

As an extrovert, Juneja finds social interactions fulfilling and says, “I have the desire to communicate effectively, for me speech is one of the most important things because that's the way you display your personality. That's the way you change the world." At U of A he has accepted a role in Student Leadership, and has played a leading role in a documentary on stuttering for ISTAR. He adds, “ISTAR has inspired me to one day own my own company, or even delve into research to find a definitive cure for stuttering.” 

Family and donor support

Behind Juneja's determination is a robust support system, particularly his family. Juneja recounts how his sister secretly completed paperwork for ISTAR on his behalf, showing her deep desire to see him thrive.

Juneja says the cost-benefit of the program is so worthwhile, adding that the dedicated team at ISTAR have given him so much time and effort. This is exactly what draws professor emeritus Peter Flynn, who held the Poole Chair in Management for Engineers in the Mechanical Engineering Department, to be a valuable donor to ISTAR. 

Flynn, a dedicated volunteer and donor to many organizations, deeply connects with ISTAR due to his personal experience with stuttering. Though unfamiliar with the institute in 1999, its mission resonated with his challenges. In his 20s, Flynn developed a stress-induced stutter, which intensified during hard times, such as shutting down his company in the '80s due to market shifts. He recalls the difficulty of job interviews with his recurring stutter and wished he had help earlier. Supporting the institute is more than a philanthropic gesture; it's profoundly personal.

Reflecting on his giving journey, Flynn observed of the ICAP fund that he knows of no other donation that has a higher impact on people per dollar donated.

Flynn recounted a poignant highlight, saying, “One of the most incredible moments for me as a donor was being invited to an ISTAR graduation ceremony. To see before videos, then to hear them make speeches, and knowing the struggles they overcame was extraordinary and very inspiring.”

Such moments offer donors a glimpse into the tangible impact of their contributions. Flynn's sentiments exemplify the ethos of giving - it's not always about the magnitude of the gift but the depth of its impact. "When we realize the profound impact of our gifts, we're driven to contribute, especially when it has the potential to transform many lives," he shared.

Juneja is convinced that without the support of donors, his growth to overcome stuttering would have been a massive challenge, if not impossible. The support of donors, his family and the entire ISTAR community was a collective effort in Juneja realizing his dreams, and in the rediscovery of a voice once silenced due to lack of confidence but now, powerfully reclaimed.