Celebrating diversity by normalising disfluency

IEU member Vikesh Anand is committed to making a difference by raising awareness and advocating for those who speak with a stutter, writes Emily Campbell.

In addition to using his voice as a tool for change, Vikesh is the head IT technician at St Dympna’s Primary School in Aspley, north of Brisbane. He is also a dedicated unionist.

Having been in the role for six years, Vikesh says he enjoys his job because it combines his love of technology and desire to help others.

“Before starting in education, I worked in technology and sales for over 20 years,” he said.

“Every day is different, and this role is the best of both worlds: I get to do what I love, which is relate to technology as well as being involved with the educational side of things, supporting teachers, students and admin,” he said.

This being his first job in the education sector, Vikesh was enthusiastic about joining the IEU so he could be part of a supportive organisation which looks out for members’ best interests.

“When I started six years ago, it was an unknown field, so I thought it was important to join for protection,” he said.

Persistence pays

Vikesh said he is appreciative of the union’s assistance throughout the process of having his role reclassified after his initial application was knocked back.

“Part of the reason for the initial rejection, from my understanding, was that at the time there was no other employee in my role at the level/step in a Brisbane Catholic primary school,” he said.

“I thought the employer’s justification was invalid, and the union and my principal agreed.

“Why should this step not apply to staff in a primary school, despite its existence for staff employed in some high schools?

“It was a joint and collaborative effort by our union and my principal, who were both working towards a common goal of having my role reclassified.

“The process took about a year, so having the support of the union, which was keeping the employer on the ball, following up and making sure the next steps were occurring to progress my application, was a relief,” he said.

Vikesh said although receiving an increase in salary was great, his motivation for seeking reclassification was fundamentally about professional recognition.

“It was about respect for the role because I do a lot at the school and there should be a higher level of recognition and respect, because technology at our school has come a long way,” he said.

‘Speak Easy’, speak freely

Vikesh’s determination to fight for positive change is also evident through his work at the Australian Speak Easy Association (ASEA), where he has been National President for three years.

“ASEA is a volunteer-run advocacy and support organisation for people who stutter, which has been around since 1980,” Vikesh said.

“It started off as a support and maintenance group for Australian adults who had completed the fluid speech therapy program, but now it’s expanded so we are inclusive of all people who stutter, irrespective of whether they choose to undergo therapy or not,” he said.

Vikesh is one of the few ASEA national presidents who has chosen not to undergo speech therapy. He maintains a philosophy of speaking freely.

“During the pandemic we have continued to hold support groups in person and also introduced online sessions,” he said.

“The online component has actually expanded our reach and allowed us to reconnect with Speak Easy members who have moved interstate,” Vikesh said.

ASEA hosts Smooth Speech maintenance groups in many parts of the country as well as new Speak Freely meet-up groups in some cities. Online groups meet nationally – providing a casual way for people with an interest in stuttering to meet.

“Speak with therapy, speak without therapy, stutter or don’t stutter, it doesn’t matter,” Vikesh said.

“As the name implies, come as you are and speak freely, without judgement.

“It’s just about being part of the stuttering community and understanding that you’re not alone,” he said.

Debunking myths

In addition to supporting people who stutter, key goals of ASEA include raising awareness and educating the public about speech disfluency and dispelling harmful myths.

“One of the myths out there is that people who stutter are less intelligent, although there is absolutely no evidence of stuttering being linked to someone’s level of intelligence,” Vikesh said.

High-profile and successful individuals such as US President Joe Biden and Australian businessman Andrew Forrest both have stutters.

“Another is that people who stutter are nervous and while nervousness can certainly increase the level of disfluency, it’s not the primary cause of stuttering, which is still unknown.

“There is a perception that people who stutter are less capable than those who speak fluently, but this is not the case, with many high-profile and successful individuals including US President Joe Biden and Australian businessman billionaire Andrew Forrest both having stutters,” he said.

Advocating for understanding

Vikesh said a highlight of his involvement in ASEA was a recent successful appeal of a decision by the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) to refuse a member funding for speech therapy.

“The individual was denied funding because the NDIS representative did not believe stuttering was a lifelong disability, so the ASEA member approached us for help,” he said.

“Along with our advisory board, which is made up of four speech pathologists and a psychologist, we collectively got the support of the Australian Stuttering Research Centre to provide us with some facts and evidence about stuttering, which we supplied to the NDIS along with a letter appealing the decision.

“The NDIS assessor acknowledged their error and claimed they had never encountered stuttering so didn’t understand.

“We need to educate the assessors on stuttering, so the people making these decisions have a thorough understanding, which is something we are advocating for along with Speech Pathology Australia,” he said.

“In our limited volunteer capacity, we do try to assist and advocate for additional funding for speech therapy treatment, and they’ve been doing trials in NSW along those lines.

“For people who do want treatment, we don’t want the cost to be a barrier.” Representation mattersVikesh has built relationships with several media outlets in his bid to raise awareness of stuttering and appears regularly as a guest on ABC Radio program Lunch Club with Kat Feeney.

“They call me about once per month and we speak about a particular topic and it’s great, because we need to make disfluency part of the narrative, so people hear someone with a stutter on the radio and focus on the content, rather than how the words come out,” Vikesh said.

“The challenge with stuttering is that it’s an invisible disability. So if I walk up to somebody, there isn’t anything that indicates that my words won’t sound fluent, which can take the listener by surprise.

“Less than 5 percent of adults have a stutter so it’s likely the person you’re speaking to has never met anyone who stutters, so it’s an opportunity to educate the listener,” he said.

Vikesh said he explained his stutter to his children when they were young as being just part of his accent.

“I told them sometimes the words bounce, sometimes they’ll slide but that’s just the way the words come out and that’s what people need to understand,” he said.

“It’s just the way we talk, it doesn’t mean anything more or determine your capability in life,” Vikesh said.

More information

Speak Easy Association: speakeasy.org.au