My first thought when I was asked to write a paper for the ISAD 2001 online conference was "wow, what an honor to be included with the famous amongst stutterers". Now as I write this paper, I wonder how I could ever be included with these people. I have no special expertise in the field of communication disorders. The only expertise I have in this field is my personal experience of stuttering for 39 years.
My first knowledge of stuttering is when I began school in the fall of 1963 (first grade), and the other kids began making fun of my speech. My parents have said that it actually began when I was five, but they assumed that I would grow out of it, as that is what our family doctor told them.
The summer before I began third grade, my family moved to a different part of town, so I had a whole bunch of new kids to deal with. My third grade teacher contacted the school district's speech therapist that began having twice weekly sessions with me. I had speech therapy from the third grade to the sixth grade twice a week, and during this time, my speech went from bad to worse.
I came home for lunch one day during the sixth grade and my dad was home. He asked me how my therapy was going, and I told him what took place during my sessions. That afternoon, I was no longer in school-sponsored speech therapy. The therapist spent the my sessions trying to drill into my head that I was bad for stuttering, I made my family look bad, and that I could stop stuttering anytime I wanted as I was only doing it for attention.
Before you get irate at the speech therapist, you first must remember that this occurred during the middle to late 1960's, and speech therapy wasn't at the same level it is today. Plus I lived in a small, very rural town in the southwest where there were (still are) more cattle than people. The rest of the world may have been in the 1960's but my hometown was still rooted in the 1890's when it was founded.
When I was 16, I asked my family doctor for help with my speech, as I was becoming enamored with the female half of the human species. Being the normal male teenager in most ways, I desperately wanted to impress the girls, but I was afraid to try because of my stuttering. So my doctor sent me to a speech clinic in Denver, Colorado for 6 weeks.
At the clinic I was treated by a wide variety of medical doctors, psychiatrists, and speech therapists. I went through many different types of therapy, but none of them seemed to last once I left the clinic walls. One of the doctors told me that if I would only learn to drawl out my natural southern accent that I wouldn't stutter. When I told the doctors that I wasn't the one with an accent, they were, they didn't seem to appreciate my comments. Even though if I did drag out my speech, (slow it down), I could talk without stuttering, but it required enormous amounts of effort and tired me out rather quickly. Then they had me put marbles in my mouth and read out loud. They told me that this is what Demosthenes did when he was trying to cure his stuttering, and that it worked for him. Well I did this for about an hour, and then began spitting the marbles out at the doctors. I was a rather good shot, in that I managed to hit all of them at least once or twice. The clinic staff told my parents that I was a hopeless case and would never be cured of stuttering and probably would end up in jail for the rest of my life.
I remained out of therapy for quite some time, as my experiences were not pleasant. In the early 1990's, the company I worked for sent me to a psychologist. She tried to teach me relaxation techniques, as she didn't know much about stuttering. The relaxation techniques would work for a short while, and when I quit concentrating on using them, they went away, and the stuttering came back.
Why am I telling you all of this? So you will have some background into my life as a stutterer, so you can understand how I feel the future of stuttering therapy should travel.
In the fall of 1999 my family and I moved to Las Cruces, NM so we could all attend college. In January 2000 I had a speech evaluation at the New Mexico State University Speech and Hearing Center. I began speech therapy in March of the same year.
The student clinician who had the misfortune of being assigned me as a client taught me more than she was required to do. For the first time in my life I found a speech therapist or Speech Language Pathologist (as they are now called), who didn't feel that my speech was the result of wanting attention, or being an "unfit" human being. She began showing me through her words and actions that I could achieve a more fluent speech than what I currently had.
I had to do an oral class presentation about 5 weeks after my speech therapy began. The professor told me that I could write a term paper instead of giving an oral speech, but because of my student SLP's excellent work, I figured that I would give it a try. I did the presentation with my student SLP in the room as "moral support". I did feel that I did a lousy job because I stuttered, but my SLP said that I did very well.
My student SLP graduated that May with her Master's degree and left school, so I was assigned two new student SLP's for the summer semesters. Dr. Linda Leeper (Ph.D., CCC-SLP) had knack for selecting graduate students for me to punish during therapy sessions. The two students and I worked on my speech twice a week all summer, we even began venturing outside the clinical setting some so I could practice my techniques in a "real world" type setting.
One of the things I observed during my clinical sessions, and when I got out of the session, is that during sessions, my speech would be fairly fluent with only a few blocks or repetitions. After the session was over and I went back to "the real world", I would be fairly fluent for a short time and then start reverting back. I mentioned this to my student clinicians and their faculty supervisor (Dr. Leeper), and they decided to start getting me out of the clinic more often.
I gave two presentations to graduate speech fluency classes and actually survived them. Then I began expanding my horizons by talking more in classes than I ever did before, I began asking questions in class rather than waiting until after class and getting the professor alone.
Yes I still stuttered while I was asking questions or giving a presentation, but now that I had a support system in place consisting of my student SLP's, their faculty supervisors, and the stuttering listserv's. With this support system and my family, I finally began to feel that I could do anything I wanted to without fear of making a fool out of myself.
During the fall semester of 2000, my student SLP and I ventured outside the clinical setting quite frequently. She had me order snacks at the Student Union Building (something I deplored doing), talk to faculty other than my professors who were used to my speech. While we fought over some of the tasks she had me do, I still had to admire her tenacity in pushing me to try. All the while I was arguing with her about doing something, she was still pushing me to expand my communication skills even farther.
During the spring semester of 2001, I was unable to attend speech therapy due to my classes were all during the daytime hours, and my employer would allow me the time to attend class, but not therapy also. So I relied on email with the faculty supervisor, my student SLP's, and the stuttering listserv's for moral support as I ventured into the "real world" without a coach.
During this time, the Speech and Hearing Center at New Mexico State University started an adult stuttering support group which I joined and began attending. I was taking my final classes to earn my bachelors degree, and since this was my final semester of school, I had to do quite a few presentations at school and at work. I managed to pull them all off, mainly because I knew that I could contact the people on the listservs, the students/staff at the NMSU Speech Center, and the support group.
Stuttering for child or a teenager is difficult because they are in their formative years where the opinions of others mean a great deal. Stuttering for an adult is the cumulative result of many years of stuttering and the attitudes towards the stuttering that you naturally develop. The stuttering techniques that I was taught, vowel prolongation, easy onset, and light articulation have helped me improve my speech. But what has helped me more than the techniques is the support system that has developed because of my therapy.
I have never been one to shy away from a challenge, but I have avoided situations where I would have to do public speaking or deal with unknown people. One of biggest problems is the "Job Interview" where you are trying to sell yourself to a prospective employer to obtain a job.
I personally feel that I have a rather extensive knowledge of my chosen field (computers) as I have been involved with them for 20 years, and have climbed the ladder by trial and error. But trying to explain this to a prospective employer while blocking, repeating words/sounds, it tends to make the interviewer think twice about hiring you. Not because you don't know your field, but because they feel that you wouldn't be able to communicate effectively with the rest of the staff.
This spring I had an interview with a rather large, well known, publicly traded company. I went for my third interview with the Human Resources representative and spent about an hour discussing my job skills, past knowledge, and academic knowledge that I have acquired during my classes and such. I audiotaped the entire interview so that I could review it later and see how well I did my speech techniques, with the interviewer's permission.
At the end of the interview, the HR representative (who was in his middle 20's) informed me that this would be my last interview with his company, as I was too old (I'm 44), my computer skills were rooted in the 60's (before he was even born), and that my speech precluded any decent company hiring me.
My first thought was to pretend that his nose was a target and to see how many times I could bounce my fist off it in thirty seconds. But then my "advanced" age got the better of me, so I asked him just as smooth as silk, if he realized how many federal employment laws he had just broken in one sentence. He replied that it didn't matter, and my audiotape didn't matter either. I was unemployable as far as he was concerned.
I took the audiotape to the Director of the Placement Center, played it for her; she contacted the company's Human Resource Director and sent a copy of the tape to him. The President of the company sent the university and myself a letter apologizing for the incident, and said that the representative in question was no longer employed with them.
Many people on the stuttering listservs suggested that I contact an attorney as I had a pretty good case for discrimination, but I declined because of the time, money and effort involved. I did send a packet of information about the National Stuttering Association to the president, and he replied saying that his company would be starting a new course for all HR personnel concerning stuttering.
During this time I was employed by the local county Detention Center and had been involved with a vendor for many months in attempting to purchase law enforcement software for the Detention Center, and local law enforcement agencies. Just before I graduated from college this May, the vendor approached me about coming to work for them once the software purchase is approved by the local city-county government (which is still in the process…maybe by the end of July), as the project manager for the entire $3 million dollar system.
I asked the vendor if my speech posed a possible problem for him, and he told me that once I began talking about the computer hardware/software that he didn't even notice my stutter, and this was in a room filled with 25-35 people. We had numerous meetings (twice a month), and are still having meetings (local governments are so much fun to work for).
I attribute my success in the meetings to my student SLP's who encouraged me to get out of my safe clinical setting, and into real world situations, where I would be on my own.
I encourage all student SLP's and practicing SLP's to ease your clients out of the clinical setting. During therapy in the clinic, I was as fluent as John Doe on the street, but outside of the clinic, my old habits and fears would kick in, and the stuttering began in earnest. But since my student SLP's literally pushed me out the door kicking and screaming, my speech has improved. I still have bad days when I can't talk to the useless cat that lives in my house, but they are becoming farther and farther apart now.
After having numerous years of really bad speech therapy, I finally found the therapy that was right for me at my local university. Maybe it was my age that forced me to try again, or maybe it was just the right time. Not everyone will have the same results that I did; they may have better or even worse results. Speech therapy is a very personal choice that each stutterer (or Person Who Stutters) has to make for his/herself.
But I also feel that the SLP (or student SLP) needs to show clients that once the client does venture into the real world, that the SLP will be there with them, at least in spirit. Send the client email encouraging them to try new situations, meet new people. Encourage your client to attend stuttering support group meetings; to join the various stuttering listservs available, as all will become a line of support for your client.
To paraphrase an old Helen Reddy song, '…We are man, we are woman, we are boy, we are girl, we may stutter, but we are strong….'. We are also afraid and many times won't admit it. Having a safety net in place can definitely help out as you venture into the "Real World".