The year was 2015, and Nathan V. Mallipeddi was in the spotlight. At the center of a bowl-shaped auditorium, he stood before a crowd of his professors, teachers, and peers to present a science project. He approached the podium,ready to deliver the talk he’d spent months researching and preparing. But when he opened his mouth to speak, nothing came out.
“I couldn’t say my name,” Mallipeddi recalls. After five minutes of sheer silence, “eventually, I got it out and then the rest of the presentation was a little bit tough,” he says.
After the presentation, people from the audience came up to Mallipeddi to ask the same question. “Did you forget your name?”
This seemingly innocuous question revealed a darker reality about the pain of stuttering, Mallipeddi says. “People think they’re trying to be funny, or trying to help, and [these comments] really hurt,” he remembers.
Born and raised near San Jose, California, Mallipeddi attended the University of California, Los Angeles, where he studied biology and political science, before coming to Harvard Medical School. The son of immigrants from India, he identifies as a proud member of the South Asian community. His father is also a person who stutters, but Mallipeddi notes that his father’s journey with stuttering does not entirely resemble his own.
“He never accepted it,” Mallipeddi says. “He was always focused on trying to hide it and trying to overcome it. He spent his whole life ignoring and treating his stutter as an enemy.”
“When I was stuttering growing up, he would constantly tell me, ‘Stop stuttering, stop stuttering,’” Mallipeddi recalls.
According to Mallipeddi, in many Eastern countries, there is a lot of cultural emphasis on family reputations. “If you stutter, you’re a reflection of your family, rather than the individual, and so [my father] didn’t want for me to reflect badly on all of us,” he says, adding that his father was concerned a stutter would prevent him from succeeding in his medical career.
Mallipeddi notes that his own struggle with stuttering is “less about the fluency and more about how it’s perceived.” “It’s an invisible disability,” he says. “What’s unique about these kinds of conditions is that when people slip up, they’re automatically attributed to be nervous or stupid or something. And that mistake is not attributed to their disability.”
Despite the high prevalence of stuttering in the U.S. — it affects around 3 million Americans — some health insurance may not cover stuttering therapy. In his freshman year at UCLA, Mallipeddi began to consider how to combat this, and in 2017, he formed the Stuttering Scholarship Alliance. The organization quickly expanded as he partnered with therapists from across the U.S. to provide access to teletherapy and group therapy, thus “improving outcomes by more than 90 percent and reducing cost by 15 times.”
Since its initial formation, SSA has helped around 20,000 people in over 25 countries and partnered with companies such as Google and Microsoft. Mallipeddi explains his dedication to this goal: for children who stutter, he says, “it’s death by a thousand paper cuts … every second, every minute, every hour, every day for years upon end children who stutter are being told that they do not belong.”
Today, the once-shy Mallipeddi is eager to get to know everyone he meets at Harvard Medical School. “I was quiet for so long, going through something that a lot of people weren’t even aware of, and I had this battle raging inside me,” he says. “ So I’m always curious to hear people’s stories, especially people who others often overlook.”
Mallipeddi does still grapple with anxiety over how his stutter will affect him working in the medical field. He worries that if he were to stutter in an emergency situation, it could potentially prove to be fatal for a patient. Nevertheless, he says, “stuttering has brought me so much. I can just look at those challenges with my head held high.”
—Sophia C. Scott can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ScottSophia_.