The following opinion editorial written by HCRI President Dr. Ronald L. Webster ran in the “Richmond Times Dispatch” on Saturday, January 29, 2011.
ROANOKE — Stuttering is the invisible problem; however, now and again something happens that brings this unusual disorder to public attention. The release of “The King’s Speech” is heightening awareness of this hampering condition. The movie delivers a powerful storyline about Britain’s King George VI, the man afflicted with stuttering who reluctantly assumed the throne. Colin Firth just won a Golden Globe for best actor for his performance as the monarch. The film garnered a total of seven Golden Globe nominations, has four Screen Actors Guild nominations and leads all Academy Award contenders with 12 Oscar nominations.
The King’s Speech” presents a revealing study of the personal stresses, limitations and daily challenges experienced by a person who stutters. In particular, we see the duke of York struggling to speak in a variety of situations. After failed attempts at treatment, through the guidance of his wife, he seeks help from an unconventional speech elocutionist, Lionel Logue, who undertakes the task of helping him speak more fluently.
While a dramatic, captivating film, “The King’s Speech” creates some misconceptions about stuttering. The story leads people to believe that there is an emotional element that causes the condition. Although the film reveals the duke of York was insecure in his family relationships and fearful of social interactions, these did not cause his stuttering. This portrayal of the stutterer incorrectly emphasizes the role of negative emotions in creating the problem.
We also learn, wrongly, that the therapist says he can “cure” the man of his stuttering. Unfortunately, there is no cure. This message exacerbates misconceptions that still exist and serves as a barrier to treatment and acceptance for those who stutter.
The beneficial aspects of Logue’s treatment dealt with improving speech-related breathing, muscle relaxation, clarity of diction and vocal projection. These address the physical components of the condition — not the emotional. In addition, the task of speech-reading practice with many, many instances of rehearsal facilitated the king’s fluency, as did the presence of the speech teacher. After 11 years of work, Logue’s teachings were manifested in the king’s powerful and fluent radio address to the nation dealing with the coming war in Germany.
The duke of York’s treatment yielded what we now refer to as “fragile fluency” — an unreliable form of fluent speech based on incomplete knowledge of what must be accomplished in order to generate stable, sustainable fluency.
Stuttering therapy has come a long way since Logue’s time. Yet, perceptions of stuttering are not all that different. The public still misunderstands that stutterers are normal people who have involuntary muscle control problems when they attempt to talk. And, many therapies are often still unfocused and produce poor results, leaving people who stutter with greater frustrations. Yet, this doesn’t have to be the case.
Here at Hollins Communications Research Institute (HCRI), we have researched thousands of stuttering cases and demonstrated that stuttering is a physically derived condition. We pioneered the concept of behavioral stuttering therapy, which helps people replace faulty speech muscle movements of stuttering with those that generate fluent speech. Through this approach, we have treated nearly 6,000 individuals with all levels of stuttering severity. And yes, we have successfully treated royalty.
One of our therapy program graduates, John Stossel, was co-host of ABC’s 20/20 and is now host of his own show on the Fox Business Channel. Stossel went from being a stuttering reporter whose interviews had to be heavily edited to capture only his fluent questions, to a nationally respected journalist with eloquent speaking skills. His fluency represents the result of a modern, objective approach to the treatment of stuttering. Direct focus on retraining speech muscles through a disciplined process makes fluency achievable and sustainable over time.
I share this information to make the point that through public awareness and appropriate, physically based treatment, people who stutter can receive the help they need — and enjoy all the benefits that fluent speakers take for granted every day.
“The King’s Speech” tells a tale of long ago regarding stuttering. It’s a great story — and one worthy of telling. Yet, the greater story is that stuttering is an important problem in its own right and now can be treated efficiently and successfully. This message is important in today’s world. Stuttering is not an invisible problem to the 3 million people in the U.S. and the 65 million worldwide who are afflicted with this unique human disorder.
Ronald L. Webster, Ph.D., is the founder of Hollins Communications Research Institute (www.stuttering.org ) and a professor of psychology (emeritus) at Hollins University. Contact HCRI at (540) 265-5650.