Making Change: My Story and the CSA Conference

Rhea Bhalla

I am a person who stutters, and I’ve stuttered since I could first speak. When I was much younger, I was hardly even aware I had a speech disability. My parents assumed my difficulty speaking was just a phase I would grow out of, and I didn’t really think about my stutter at all. One day in first grade, everything changed. I remember a school project where I had to present a report in front of the entire class with my friend. There was a point where I began to stumble over my words — stuttering and blocking — and at one point I was unable to say anything at all. The class had gone silent, and my friend turned to me and whispered: “Stop it. You’re embarrassing us.”

I think that’s something a lot of people with disabilities experience. The feeling that, not only are we different from everyone else, we’re embarrassing to the people around us. The guilt. After that day at school, I became hyper-aware of my disability. I developed selective mutism and became the “quiet kid” in the classroom. I hated being different from other kids and struggling with something that should have been simple. It wasn’t until many years later, when I founded a CSA support group at the age of fourteen, that I finally found my voice. For over four years, my support group has shown me the challenging, fulfilling, terrifying, and exciting realities of having a disability. They have shown me that people with disabilities can lead happy and fulfilling lives — not despite their disability, but because of it.

This year, I had the honour of co-leading the CSA’s Child and Youth Programming Committee with the wonderful Alexandra D’Agostino. At the national conference in Ottawa, we held seven interactive workshops geared towards kids, including Stuttering Jeopardy, Youth Improv, and Let’s Draw Comics. The workshops were a huge success. Watching the kids laugh together, crack jokes, and bat multi-coloured balloons across the room, one would never have guessed they were strangers only days ago. As they whispered the answers to trivia questions in each other’s ears and yelled them out to the room, worries about stuttering were forgotten.

At the final Open Mic session, one of the kids took to the stage, in front of an audience filled with adults. She talked about how much she loved the conference, the friends she had made, and the new activities she had tried out. My heart filled with pride. And I was even more grateful for the opportunity to play one small part in the memories of a weekend she would treasure forever.

When I reflect on why I was upset about my disability all those years ago, and scared for what the future would hold, I realize the negative feelings were a reflection of how society devalues people with disabilities. Society tells such children that their disability is the end and not the beginning. But if there’s anything I learned at this year’s CSA conference, it’s that this generation of kids who stutter are strong. They are resilient. They are unapologetic. They stutter with pride. The CSA can change the lives of youth who stutter. I know it changed mine. Through my roles with the CSA – past, present, and future – I want to continue the advocacy and activism that is so needed in the disability community.

My disability has presented an immense challenge, but it has also shown me my life is full of hypotheses to test and barriers to break down. It’s shown me who I am — and who I want to be for my community. It's the tool I want to use to make change.

Rhea Bhalla is a first-year student at the University of Manitoba. She is the 2023 recipient of the CSA Award for a post-secondary student who stutters.

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