|About the presenter: Alan Badmington is a former police officer and lifelong stutterer from Wales, UK. He is a highly successful public speaker, having won numerous trophies and appeared as a finalist in the 2005 Association of Speakers Clubs UK national public speaking championships. Alan regularly addresses diverse community organisations in an attempt to increase public awareness about stuttering, while his media involvement has further brought the subject to the fore. He has given talks to SLP students in the USA, as well as undertaking presentations/workshops at NSA/BSA events. He was a keynote speaker at the 7th World Congress for People Who Stutter in Australia in February 2004, where he won the Oratory Competition. Email: email@example.com|
Technology figures prominently in the lives of many people. It has become an integral part of our everyday existence - we tend to take it so much for granted. I suspect that it is only in the event of product failure or power disruption, that we really appreciate the role that it plays.
For the purpose of this paper, I shall divide technology into two separate categories -- 'assistive technology' and 'general technology'.
Whilst technology is helpful to many, there are those for whom it is a necessity. It plays a significant role in the life of someone with a severe disability, handicap or illness. Such persons may be heavily dependent upon equipment in order to perform routine tasks and cannot function without them.
Assistive technology can also improve the quality of life for people who experience impairment of vision, hearing, mobility, learning and communication. The list of products is endless.
In relation to stuttering, assistive devices have been commercially available for many years.
The 1970's saw the development of an electronic fluency enhancing device, known as the Edinburgh Masker, the function of which was to obliterate (mask) the sound of the wearer's voice by emitting a white noise into the ears. This technology is sometimes referred to as Masked Auditory Feedback (MAF).
The Edinburgh Masker was the forerunner of other prosthetic devices which produced Delayed Auditory Feedback (DAF); Frequency Altered Feedback (FAF); and/or Altered Auditory Feedback (AAF), all of which change the manner in which the user hears his/her own voice.
Persons who stutter (PWS) have also enlisted the aid of text-to-speech programmes to facilitate speaking on the telephone, ordering in restaurants, or giving speeches. Such technology may also be used by other groups with communication difficulties.
Incidentally, the importance of technological assistance for persons with communicative difficulties has been recognised by the British Police Service. It is to my knowledge that they are currently considering ways of improving the manner in which such persons may provide them with information relating to criminal occurrences etc.
The array of general technology available to PWS is wide and varied, although it is not specifically designed for that section of the population.
The advent of Internet has, in many ways, proved to be a boon for PWS, although (as I will discuss later), I feel it can also be a bane. It has facilitated extensive dissemination of information about stuttering, thus enabling people in all parts of the world (including speech-language therapists/pathologists) to gain a better insight into the subject. Although stuttering has heavily influenced my life from a very early age, I knew virtually nothing about the problem until recent times.
Today, there is an abundance of websites offering advice and support for PWS, family members, friends, employers, teachers and professionals. Many, who previously felt isolated, have learned about stuttering organisations/associations throughout the world. The internationally renowned Stuttering Homepage (in addition to hosting this ISAD Online Conference) provides a wealth of information about many different aspects of stuttering.
Various listservs and other stuttering-related forums have emerged during recent years, enabling PWS (and other interested parties) to readily exchange views, experiences and information. Many of these sites also incorporate articles of interest and useful links.
Online programs, such as Yahoo Messenger, MSN, Skype etc, afford facilities for instant communication (speech and text) worldwide. My involvement with a host of different Internet groups has brought me into contact with thousands of persons associated with stuttering.
However, it has been my experience that the majority of those who belong to the major English-speaking international discussion forums are reluctant to use the voice facilities available. As a former moderator of one such forum, I frequently encouraged members to take part in oral discussions, viewing them as wonderful opportunities to converse, or practise techniques, in a safe and friendly environment. Only a very small minority accepted the challenge, preferring the non-speaking text options.
The use of the mobile/cell phone has flourished during recent years. However, I am aware that some PWS favour text messaging, rather than engage in voice conversations.
In my younger days, I recall utilizing a metronome in order to create a rhythmic speaking pattern. It proved reasonably successful at home (in a benign environment) but I could never transfer the gains into the real world.
THE EDINBURGH MASKER
As a police officer, I experienced considerable difficulties as a result of my stutter, particularly when giving evidence in court. I was transferred to a non-operational role when a supervisory officer reported that I was "an embarrassment to all concerned".
The severity of my stutter caused me to acquire an Edinburgh Masker, which I wore at all times while on duty. I also used it on social occasions and always kept it near to the telephone at home. I became so reliant on the device that I wore it for 10/12/14 hours daily. I developed the belief that I could not exist without it, and always had an array of spare parts on hand in case of failure. It became my mechanical crutch for more than 20 years, during which time I did not hear myself speak whilst it was activated. I was subjected to a buzzing noise every time that I uttered a sound, making it impossible for me to hear others who spoke simultaneously. Consequently, I became very adept at lip-reading. I also experienced frequent headaches and ear infections.
Shortly after purchasing the device, a senior police officer expressed his concern about the fact that I would be wearing such an item while performing my duties. He went strangely silent when I politely enquired if he would be able to fulfil his responsibilities without the thick horn-rimmed spectacles that he constantly wore.
After several years of using the apparatus, I persuaded my employers to allow me to return to operational duties. With the aid of the Masker, I renewed the much-needed public contact that I had been denied for so many years. I gave evidence in court, dealt with incidents and even attempted some lecturing. I continued to wear it in social situations.
I met many people daily. My speech was better in some circumstances but I was never fluent. I wore the Masker at all times - it became my mechanical crutch. I constantly lived with the fear of mechanical failure and always carried spare components.
Although the apparatus never eliminated my stutter, it gave me the confidence to venture into situations that I might, otherwise, have avoided. Consequently, I expanded my comfort zones and developed my interpersonal skills.
Despite experiencing considerable setbacks, I built a system that would eventually support greater fluency and self-expression later in life. I am in no doubt that, had it not been for the Edinburgh Masker, I would never have been in such a favourable position to take advantage of another approach when it subsequently became available. The device provided invaluable assistance when it was most needed. Without it, I would have floundered.
Reflecting on my lengthy experience of wearing the Edinburgh Masker (which, incidentally, is no longer manufactured), I have become increasingly appreciative of the important interim contribution that it made in, subsequently, enabling me to deal with my stuttering problem.
Use by others
Since commencing my association with the international stuttering community (via the Internet and attendances at workshops/conferences in various parts of the world), I have come into contact with PWS who have experimented with the device. Many discarded the apparatus within a relatively short period of time, due to lack of success and personal discomfort.
One major exception was the late and respected Marty Jezer (a fellow long-term Masker user), with whom I enjoyed considerable dialogue in the years immediately preceding his sad death in 2005. Despite never being particularly fluent, Marty (who also used the DAF and FAF devices) came to enjoy talking, including public speaking.
In an article reproduced in the ASHA SID4 Newsletter in October 1999, he wrote:
A few days ago, I spoke up at my local school board meeting. It was a heated topic, there was a large audience, and it was being broadcast live on cable access TV. I stuttered, but I held the attention of the audience. Without my DAF unit, I wouldn't have done it. It wasn't the fear of stuttering in public that would have stopped me. It was my level of disfluency; without my portable DAF, the audience would not have understood me. And that, not the fact of my stuttering, would have been humiliating."
Based upon my personal experiences of using the Edinburgh Masker, I feel that such devices can play an important role in improving the quality of life of some PWS.
In my particular case, it allowed me to develop useful interpersonal skills, which are often deficient in someone who stutters. Acquisition of such skills is an ongoing process that begins at an early age. Some PWS lose out by remaining on the fringes of social interaction.
I have no hesitation in saying that, in common with Marty Jezer, I would have shirked many of the challenges and responsibilities that I accepted during the 20 years that I persevered with the device, particularly whilst on police duty.
When we expand our comfort zones, and tread unfamiliar paths, we grow as human beings. The Masker certainly aided my personal development.
The benefit of hindsight
With hindsight (isn't it a wonderful thing?), I feel that I could have made more effective use of the Masker in relation to one specific area of my stuttering. Although I faced many challenging situations (both on police duty and within social environments), I realise that I still succumbed to some avoidances. In particular, I continued to practise substantial word substitution. I could have derived greater benefit had I used the machine to deal with the avoidance issue.
But, at the time, I did not appreciate the harmful implications of such behaviour. No-one had ever explained that each time I avoided a word or letter, the fear level increased. I was strengthening my long-held belief that half of the alphabet (13 letters) lay outside my scope.
In 2000, I made the decision to abandon the Edinburgh Masker. It had been a faithful servant for two decades, sustaining me in my greatest hours of need. It had played an immense part in enabling me to cope with the extensive demands that I faced during my former police career. Without it, I would have remained confined to administrative duties.
I felt that it was time to move on and release myself from the dependency that I had developed upon my mechanical crutch. Severing the connection was similar to losing a close friend -- after all, it had been my constant companion for two decades. We had been through so much together.
In the absence of the 'reassuring' (yet infuriating) buzzing sound, I felt rather 'naked'; I was being exposed to the outside world without my protective cloak. It was, initially, disconcerting to listen to my voice, as it had been purposely silenced for so many years. But, I soon became accustomed to it and I, actually, liked what I heard.
My divorce from the Masker coincided with my decision to adopt a more pro-active approach to my stutter. This involved, inter alia, total non-avoidance (including zero-tolerance to word substitution) and extensive expansion of my comfort zones.
At the same time, I also made a conscious decision to purposely befriend the everyday technology that I had previously tended to shun.
I vastly increased my use of the telephone -- an item that I had, hitherto, used only when absolutely essential. I spent several hours each day calling toll-free numbers (selected from the Yellow Pages directory), inventing fictitious enquiries. I simply wanted to practise speaking, while also challenging various self-limiting beliefs, including my perceived inability to say certain words.
I would leave messages on answering machines/voicemail -- technology that had always filled me with trepidation.
When purchasing petrol, I declined to use the credit card facility at the pumps, choosing to complete the transaction, in person. As an added challenge, I would deliberately select a pump bearing a number that caused me difficulty, so that I was obliged to say it when fulfilling the purchase.
I would call the National Enquiry line to obtain train times, rather than seek the information online. I also booked theatre/concert tickets via the telephone, ignoring the non-speaking Internet option.
Email is a wonderful means of communication, but can encourage avoidance. There are, of course, times when it is more expedient to communicate via this method. I adopted strict criteria when contemplating the use of email. If there was any suggestion of avoidance, then I opted for personal contact, even when it involved calling someone in another country.
There are many other examples of where I have embraced technology in an attempt to deal with my previous fear of speaking. I joined an international support group network and regularly engage in conversation with PWS (on three continents), via telephone and Skype.
Having entered the world of public speaking, I utilise a voice recorder so that I may monitor the content and delivery of my speech, in advance of the presentation.
A PERSONAL CHOICE
I am of opinion that some forms of technology can work to the disadvantage of persons who stutter, particularly where their use fuels avoidance. The Internet and text messaging certainly fall within this category. However, I would like to make it abundantly clear that I am not in any way criticising such usage -- I'm merely making an observation.
It would be improper of anyone to question the motives of those PWS who lean upon technology for assistance. It's entirely their choice. Who can blame those who wish to avoid the adverse reactions that sometimes occur, simply because we are unable to communicate in a manner that is acceptable to some sections of the community? Who can blame those who wish to escape ridicule, isolation or lack of respect? Who can blame those who wish to avoid the erroneous perception that they are of a nervous disposition, uneducated or unsociable? Who can blame those who simply wish to converse with a friend; commence a relationship; or contribute to discussions at work, school, or social events?
We should never berate ourselves for indulging in avoidance. So many people evade things that cause them fear or discomfort. Such behaviour is not exclusive to PWS.
My decision to discard the Edinburgh masker, while simultaneously attempting to deal with the issue of avoidance, was generated by a desire to gain independence from the support that both had provided for so many years. Those dual crutches (I certainly consider avoidance to be a crutch) served me well for so long. But, having been supported for such a lengthy period, I finally wanted to stand on my own two feet. I wanted to walk unaided through life.
Relinquishing the Masker, and choosing to say the words of my choice, irrespective of the consequences, proved to be so liberating. I felt that I had finally broken free from the debilitating oral shackles that inhibited me since childhood.
I wish to stress that the route that I have taken is unique to me. We all come from different backgrounds; possess different personalities; have encountered different life experiences; and accumulated different degrees of emotional baggage. We also set out from different starting lines, and have different aims and aspirations.
I am not, in anyway, suggesting that others should attempt to follow the path I have trodden. That was my choice and mine alone -- it was what I wanted to do. We each have to accept responsibility for our own journey through life, and make whatever decisions we feel are pertinent, in accordance with our individual circumstances.
CHANGING THE MINDSET
Whilst readily acknowledging that technology can have a positive effect upon the life of a PWS, I also firmly believe that there are occasions when it may be less than positive. That is why I feel it is healthy for us to take time to examine our attitudes towards, and the use of, such items.
If we simply take possession of a prosthetic device, and confine ourselves to our safe environments, then we will, forever, retain our fears of speaking in more challenging situations. If we continue to practise approach avoidance, then we will continue to have self-limiting beliefs about the words, and situations, from which we choose to shelter.
It is of prime important that a prosthetic device should not be viewed as a 'quick-fix' or a 'cure'. That, certainly, is not the case. In my opinion, they are best used (perhaps in conjunction with some kind of therapy, approach, or stuttering management) to assist the wearers to challenge their fears and self-limiting beliefs and expand their comfort zones. As I discovered, there is a need to change the stuttering mindset.
Our thoughts and actions are shaped by our beliefs and self-image. As long as we continue to hold self-limiting beliefs, or fail to change the way that we see ourselves, we will continue to act in accordance with those beliefs and image.
FRIEND OR FOE?
During my lifetime of stuttering, technology has been both a help and a hindrance. The Edinburgh Masker was, undoubtedly, a valued friend -- always on hand in times of need; sharing in my successes and witnessing my tears. Other types of technology have, unwittingly, become foes by allowing me to increase avoidances.
But, even the best of friends sometimes part company. Relationships alter; the attraction wanes; the bond lessens. That's what happened when I made the decision to change the direction of my life. But, unlike most break-ups, we parted on amicable terms - there were no recriminations. I will cherish the memories of the time we spent together.
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