At Long Last, A Positive Portrayal of Stuttering

by Judith Maginnis Kuster

Years ago, after much searching, I found a disc recording of King George VI's speech, delivered Sept. 3, 1939, to use as an example of "famous people who stutter" in my stuttering course. The Internet has made the king's speech much easier to find. Now this historical event has become the subject of the award-winning film, The King's Speech" (movie trailer) (TKS), which provides a sympathetic and accurate portrayal of stuttering.

The script was written by the very patient David Seidler, a person who stutters; he promised the Queen Mum it wouldn't be produced until after her death, which occurred in 2002 at age 101. Seidler was interviewed on StutterTalk and he will be honored by Our Time Theatre Company at its April 11 gala in New York City. He also will keynote two conferences in July - the FRIENDS conference on July 21-23 in Washington, D.C., and the National Stuttering Association conference on July 6-10 in Fort Worth, Texas.

The film brings together three actors from the British version of "Pride and Prejudice" - Lizzy, Darcy, and Mr. Collins - and features an actress in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows." Their acting, and the film itself, have received high critical praise (search "The King's Speech" for numerous reviews).

Lionel Logue (left, played by Geoffrey Rush) and King George VI (played by Colin Firth)

A Different Perspective

Speech-language professionals and people who stutter may view the film from a different perspective. Some of its ideas are dated of course, as the film depicts the 1930s and 1940s. The professionals in the film use techniques that are now thoroughly discredited - marbles in the mouth and smoking to "relax the throat" (which probably contributed to the king's death of lung cancer). Other film ideas were current at the time but no longer hold - stuttering is caused by forcing a left-handed child to become right-handed, adult stuttering may be "cured," and stuttering is caused by a harsh upbringing.

As Bowen noted in the previous article, Lionel Logue was trained in elocution, not speech therapy, but some of the methods he used in the film (whether or not they were what he actually did) are still credible. In many ways Logue was a good "therapist."

Recognizing motivation as essential in therapy, rather than forcing the issue, he waited until the king was "ready." He established an ideal clinical relationship - supportive, reinforcing, encouraging - and an equality between client and therapist. Logue made it clear that stuttering was not just a physical/motor problem yet allowed the the king to set the initial goal of working on physical/motor symptoms.

Logue demonstrated the temporary fluency-enhancing effects of masking, singing, speaking loudly, and cursing, but his therapy included much more. He involved the family (the queen) in therapy and used techniques still part of some therapy programs today - desensitization through continuous practice, encouragement for the king to explore ways to expand his "comfort zone," relaxation, diaphragmatic breathing, and continuous phonation. Other techniques shown in the film are pausing, bouncing, light contacts, gliding into a word with a slight prolongation, emphasizing how sounds are produced, focusing on "forward moving," starting a problem word with a slight exhale, and monitoring rate.

The film made it clear there are no "quick fixes" and that the client/clinician "relationship" is more important than techniques taught to the client. Although the king's stuttering was not "cured," he became an effective communicator. The king demonstrated his increased self-confidence after his great "speech" with a flash of humor. Logue told the king, "You still stammered on the 'w,'" and the king replied, "I had to throw in a few extra ones so they knew it was me." Actor Colin Firth, who played the king, found that quote in the Logue diary. In an interview, Firth said that when he found it, he thought, "We've got to have that in the film."

Public Outreach

Media interest in "The King's Speech" and stuttering in general has been strong. Tommie L. Robinson Jr., ASHA immediate past president, has participated in interviews with a variety of media, including the Los Angeles Times, MSNBC, Hollywood Reporter, abcnews.com, Washington Post Express, Insiders Health Radio, KLOS Radio, Society for Human Resource Management, Florida Times-Union, Vancouver Sun, Women's Day, and WBTM-1330 radio (go online for clips). ASHA member Vivian Sisskin appeared on the Washington, D.C., Fox News affiliate in a segment on the movie and treatment SLPs provide to stutterers.

In the United Kingdom, the British Stammering Association (BSA) has provided members with detailed instructions on how to use the film to educate the public about stuttering, and calls the film a "once-in-a-generation moment to create change." The BSA's chief executive interviewed Colin Firth, and members and others in the United Kingdom have been interviewed and written articles about their stammering and the impact TKS has had on public awareness. A few examples in the British press:

The National Stuttering Association calls TKS a "compelling story of a real-life hero." Many NSA members, professionals and consumers, have distributed literature after film screenings and have been interviewed for newspapers, television, and radio. (See the NSA "press room."

There has been extensive coverage of TKS by The Stuttering Foundation

Stuttering in Other Movies

Stuttering has long been portrayed in films and on television. Below are some sources of coverage:

Short clips of several films demonstrating stuttering are online: Several films and television productions portray stuttering well, including "Paulie," "The Right Stuff," "Rocket Science," and episodes on "Little House on the Prairie" and "M.A.S.H." Most agree, however, that the best depiction of stuttering in film was accomplished by Firth in "The King's Speech."


Sidebar: Turning the Tide on Negative Stereotypes

Feature films and television shows have frequently used a stutter to depict a flawed character, creating unfortunate stereotypes that affect public perception of stuttering.

People Who Stutter Can't Handle a Crisis

Stuttering Is Comical or Something to Mock Stuttering Is a Symptom of a Psychological Flaw or an Evil Person

Judith Maginnis Kuster, MS, CCC-SLP, is an emeritus professor in the Department of Speech, Hearing, and Rehabilitation Services at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Contact her at judith.kuster@mnsu.edu. An archive of all of Kuster's columns can be found at www.mnsu.edu/comdis/kuster4/leader.html. URLs change, however, and there is no guarantee that links from previous columns are still functional.

cite as: Kuster, J. M. (2011, February 15). At Long Last, A Positive Portrayal of Stuttering. The ASHA Leader.