PBS Program Gives Rare Insight Into the World of People Who Stutter

A Review
By Ira Zimmerman

The final pilot episode of the PBS series "Right Here, Right Now" (Call your local PBS station for date and time). This documentary gives a rare insight into the real world of people who stutter-a world filled with people of enormous courage despite the pain and personal shame they must deal with every day of their lives. The program is a new and innovative video diary series of intensely personal stories by non-professional filmmakers. Allowing ordinary men and women to tell their own stories in their own words and pictures moves reality television to a new level.

Featured in the program is Jonelle Thornton, a certified school psychologist who had completed her doctorate dissertation at the University of Pittsburgh and now has to appear in person before a tough faculty committee to defend the doctorate she has pursued for a decade. But to Jonelle, there is one major obstacle. She has a lifelong chronic severe stutter. In a last ditch effort to improve her speech before having to accept herself as a severe stutterer for the rest of her life, she enrolls in the 1997 summer stuttering workshop at Eastern Washington University under the direction of Dorvan H. Breitenfeldt, Ph.D., CCC-SLP who is a stutterer himself. The University's "Successful Stuttering Management Program" (SSMP) has been developed and used for over 35 years. The University reports that "it has helped hundreds of clients gain insights to deal honestly with their stuttering disorder and to gain new control and confidence in their daily interactions with others."

Jonelle says that she sees this documentary "not just as my story, but as our story." And to that end, some of the program's participants share tales of their own painful struggles to communicate. It is so rare that the public has the opportunity to see inside the real world of persons who stutter. What is so riveting about this film is that each of the persons who tell their story are on the brink of an experience that will change the course of their lives. And they also have enough of an insight and enough observational skill to be able to learn something of the process and articulate what they are learning.

At the beginning of the documentary, Jonelle tells us that even though she is a certified school psychologist she is "scared to death to even put in a job application for fear that I'll get turned down." As a graduate student who will shortly have to defend her doctorate dissertation, she hopes that going through SSMP will allow her to defend her dissertation and "allow people to hear what I'm saying and not concentrate on my stuttering."

Within the first hour of therapy program, the clients are asked to show the group their stuttering by introducing themselves. For most of these people have spent most of their lives and enormous physical energy trying to hide their stuttering. And the task of saying our name is one of the most challenging things for us to do. There is no way to substitute other words. Our name is our name and has so much to do with self-identity as a person who has so much difficulty talking and being ridiculed because of that.

Later that night Jonelle tells us how difficult that first day was "seeing people struggle." But hopeful that in three and half weeks speaking to the group will be a lot easier for most of the clients. And Jonelle knows that it will be as exciting to see other people's success as it will be to see her's. And she offers the opportunity to anyone in the group to tell their stories as part of this PBS documentary.

At various times, Program participant Nora O'Connor took the camera to her room to tell her very personal story of tragedy and triumph. She reports that she stuttered so severely that going into a fast food restaurant, she had to write down what she wanted to order-pretending to be a deaf person. Nora admits that "my stuttering controlled every part of my being. It just hurt too much to have so many feelings and thoughts and opinions and ideas and all in my head and they just couldn't come out of my mouth. It tore me up." At one time Nora ended up in a psychiatric ward with self-inflicted burn marks and cuts as a way of proving to herself that she was alive because she didn't have a voice.

After a few days in the program, Jonelle had redefined her goal to "managing my stuttering." The goal was no longer to be totally fluent. The goal now was to be able to stutter successfully. Jonelle admits that in the past the word "stutter" and "successfully" didn't go together.

The SSMP group went to "Adventure Dynamics" to challenge various physical fears such as the fear of heights. Critical to the job of attending a program like SSMP is for the client to stretch themselves and to challenge life long fears. The SSMP manual states that "a secondary stutterer must first work on their attitude toward his stuttering-development of objectivity toward his blocks. A willingness to let them out in his speech and practice of feared words and situations will greatly decrease his situation fears and allow him to successfully manage his stuttering." The documentary shows participants going into the local community and advertising the fact that they are a stutterer. The film shows the resistance of some clients to do this by protesting that they aren't so proud of being a stutterer. If they were, they won't be in this program. But Jonelle makes the point that trying to hide the fact that they stutter leads to the fear that the listener might find out that they stutter. For most stutterers, we do have moments of normal speech and will do anything we can to be normal. But for us, this path has done more harm than good. Advertising that fact that we are stutterers right off eliminates that fear of discovery and shame associated with being a person who stutters.

Part of SSMP is tallying the number of times they stutter. The purpose is to become aware of their blocks and when they happen. Making telephone calls such as calling a radio station to request a song was another required exercise for all program participants. For stutterers, making telephone calls and not seeing the other person on the line is most difficult for us. A long silent block at the start of a telephone conversation has resulted in being hung up on many times. This process of increasing awareness and acceptance of one's stuttering is a critical prerequisite to the next phase of the SSMP program.

Also the support of other program participants is a critical part of the program. As SSMP Client Margie Hansen said that if she had seen some of the people in the program on the street or in school, she would have thought that "they are too weird for me and they are not my type...But I find that everyone here are wonderful people and we share one very important thing and that's stuttering."

Program Director Dr. Breitenfeldt describes the second phase as "the second objective of stuttering therapy is altering the stuttering pattern. Since we know of no way to take your stuttering away, we can alter the stuttering pattern. We can learn to change our stuttering." Speech therapists demonstrate ways to make the stuttering pattern easier and less tension filled such as using easy prolongations.

And at the end of the therapy program is a graduation ceremony where each participants shares their feelings including one man who said that when he gets back home he is going to talk to as many girls as possible. For Jonelle, "the most important gift I leave here with is the acceptance of myself as a stutterer. I look forward to going home, reading to my niece which is something that I seldom do and reading in church. I know that I will have some difficulties but I think my whole frame of reference as far as having difficulties has changed. One of the things I wanted to do when I left here was to tell people my name and I can do that now. I can approach people and say, Hello my name is Jonelle Thornton and I'm a stutterer"

The documentary follows Jonelle back home for that big moment-the successful defense of her doctorate dissertation before a faculty committee at the University of Pittsburgh. As one of the faculty members congratulates the new Dr. Thornton, she reminds her that "your journey is just beginning." A good reminder not only for Dr. Thornton's professional career but also for what she had learned through the Successful Stuttering Management Program.

The segment concludes with that tender moment that most take for granted-the reading of a story to a child.

"Right Here Right Now" credits include Ellen Schneider (Creator/Executive Producer) and Steve Atlas (Executive Editor). The program is co-produced and co-presented by the Independent Television Service (ITVS) and WGBH. Funding was provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

added with permission of the author, April 14, 2000