Stutterers praise King’s Speech

Kids especially pleased with movie’s message

 

A movie about a stuttering monarch,
without sex, car chases or sinewy super heroes, hardly sounds like blockbuster
box-office fare.

But in a less flashy way, The
King’s Speech is about a hero, one who battles an invisible enemy that torments
nearly 70 million people around the world. In demystifying the
little-understood speech impediment, the award-winning film reveals myths and
fascinating truths about stuttering, and has won praise from stutterers of all
ages.

For Erik Yehl, an 11-year-old
Chicago boy who began stuttering in preschool, the movie’s powerful message is,
“I’m not stupid.”

It’s a stigma all people who
stutter contend with — the notion that because their words sometimes sputter or
fail to come out at all, their minds must be somehow mixed up.

“People who stutter — their minds
are perfectly good, and they’re not deaf, and they don’t need to be told to
breathe. They know how to breathe. What they need … is to be listened to,”
said Susan Hardy, who saw the film with her son Aidan, a 14-year-old Chicago
eighth-grader who also stutters.

Aidan’s mini-review? “It was
great!” he said.

 

Tortured by stuttering

The film depicts King George VI,
father of England’s Queen Elizabeth II, as a reluctant leader tortured by his
stuttering. But with a sense of duty as England confronts a second world war,
he musters the courage to seek speech therapy so he can address and calm an
anxious nation.

The movie and its actors have
already won Golden Globes and other honours, including 12 Oscar nominations.

The focus on George’s relationship
with his eccentric speech therapist who insists on treating him as an equal
makes the king a sort of everyman for people who stutter.

TV commentator Clarence Page, a
nationally syndicated Chicago Tribune columnist, said in an interview that the
film heroically depicts a condition he has battled most of his 63 years.

Like the king, Page had a strong
advocate: a coach who helped him as a teen win second-place in a speech contest
after a humiliatingly bad performance the previous year.

“Every stuttering kid needs
optimistic support like that,” Page wrote in a recent column praising the
movie.

 

Huge impact

Jane Fraser, president of the
Stuttering Foundation of America, said the movie mirrors her experience growing
up with a father who stuttered. Malcolm Fraser formed the advocacy group in
1947 to raise awareness and provide resources for people who stutter. Watching
the movie, Jane Fraser said she relived the mortification she used to feel on
her father’s behalf.

“The impact for me was just
bringing home 64 years of trying to get across to people how devastating this
disorder is. Just in one fell swoop, this film really got that across,” she
said.

Stuttering affects almost 1 per
cent of the global population, including 3 million in the United States. It
typically begins in early childhood as kids are learning to speak and is more
common in boys. About 5 per cent of children stutter, but most outgrow it. The
condition tends to run in families and genes are thought to be involved in at
least some cases.

For Erik Yehl, a soft-spoken boy
who loves basketball and video games, the film was sometimes tough to watch,
because it hit so close to home. A scene showing George failing miserably while
trying to give a speech to a packed stadium was particularly difficult. British
actor Colin Firth’s portrayal makes the shame George feels uncomfortably
palpable even for non-stutterers.

“It was hard to hear the speech
because he stuttered and I hate to hear that,” Erik said haltingly.

Erik’s stuttering becomes most
noticeable when he’s nervous. Curiously, his speech flows fluently when he
calls out to teammates while playing basketball or soccer.

 

Another surprising truth

The film reveals another surprising
truth — singing often frees stutterers of their problem. And experts say that
for some people, stuttering disappears when they speak to infants or animals,
imitate a foreign dialect, or perform a role onstage.

British actress Emily Blunt has
been quoted as saying she chose her career after discovering in a school play
that her own stuttering stopped while she was acting.

The scant brain imaging research
done on the impediment has suggested that different kinds of brain activity occur
when people stutter than when they speak fluently. Scientists aren’t sure why,
and also don’t know why different activities induce fluency among some but not
all stutterers, said Ehud Yairi, a prominent University of Illinois expert on
stuttering.

Research published last year
identified mutations in three genes that likely contribute to some cases of
stuttering.

But it’s unclear what function
those genes have and much about the condition remains a mystery, Yairi said. A
researcher and professor emeritus, Yairi is also a stutterer, who speaks at a
measured, slow pace.

It used to be thought that
stuttering was a psychological problem caused by anxiety or nervousness, and
“The King’s Speech” seems to suggest that George’s mistreatment as a child may
have contributed to his condition. But experts have largely dismissed that
idea, Yairi said.

When children begin to stutter,
they’re usually too young to be aware of it and rarely seem anxious about their
speech. It’s only as they mature and perceive the negative reactions that they
become anxious and ashamed, Yairi said.

Scientists also used to believe
stuttering developed in some children in reaction to parents reprimanding them
if they repeated words or sounds while learning to speak.

“We have shown that this is quite
likely not the case,” he said.

Still, Yairi said, it’s true that
“whatever the cause, negative reactions can make a big difference in how the
disorder develops.”

Aidan Hardy said he has been
bullied and teased for stuttering. He hates it when people tell him to just
calm down and focus.

“There are certain ways to help
someone talk better and there are some things that most people think will help,
but they don’t. I’m hoping this movie will fix that,” Aidan said.

Page, the columnist, said
stutterers typically develop a deep vocabulary of words “to avoid our ‘trouble’
words.” For Page, trouble comes from words that start with vowels. He uses
substitutes, even going so far as to request a pear when he’d prefer an apple —
just to avoid tripping over the ‘a’.

Speech therapist Stephanie Hirsh,
who runs the Center for Communication & Fluency Therapy in Highland Park,
Ill., says she learned to control her own stuttering partly by using a
breathing technique to maintain a continuous flow of air while talking. In the
film, the speech therapist used a similar method by having King George insert
an “ah” sound into a sentence before a treacherous word.

Hirsh also offers this advice: Let
stutterers know they have all the time they need to express themselves, and
that you really want to hear what they have to say.

She said her own parents were
advised by speech therapists not to talk about her stuttering and not to bring
it to her attention.

The opposite approach is now
favored. That may be why many stutterers have embraced “The King’s Speech,” for
bringing stuttering out into the open.

“If we don’t talk about it,” Hirsh
said, “then it becomes even scarier.”

FEATTheKingsSpeechSTORY

Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter in The King’s Speech, an award-winning movie that has helped demystify the truths about stuttering.