There is Help for Stutterers

[The following opinion editorial about the movie, The King’s Speech, and the HCRI stuttering therapy program appeared in the “Roanoke Times” on Monday, January 24, 2011.]

Written by: 
Gerald McDermott,Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion
Distinguished Senior Fellow, Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion
Roanoke College, Salem, Virginia

Just after my wife and I watched “The King’s Speech” at the Grandin Theatre in Roanoke, a friend asked me if I enjoyed it.

“No, I suffered through it. But it was a great movie.”

I have been a stutterer since the age of 6. Every time King George VI puffed his cheeks helplessly as he tried to get out a word, I felt the frustration and pain.

We stutterers know all too well “Bertie’s” fear of situations that would force us to read a text publicly or speak before a group. Most stutterers fear the telephone because we cannot control the dialogue. We remember painfully the innumerable occasions when we had all the right words in our heads but could not utter them.

We groan as we think of all the well-meaning friends and family who tell us — as they told the British king — to take a breath or just relax. If we could, we would.

Famous stutterers include Moses, Demosthenes, Churchill (whose problem the movie alludes to), Marilyn Monroe, Oral Roberts, Carly Simon, James Earl Jones and John Stossel. Eighty percent of all stutterers are males.

Like most stutterers, my disability started when I was very young. My mother feared I would flunk kindergarten because no one but she could understand me. Somehow I passed. But then in first grade my teacher put me in front of the class to help me enunciate. My panic developed into stuttering, which I would be helpless to manage for the next 32 years.

Stuttering often turned school into a nightmare. Fellow students looked at me quizzically and mockingly. In high school, one considerate lad asked me publicly why I could not talk like everyone else. I was glad to take Latin and Greek, so-called dead languages, because reading them was important — not speaking them.

But I dreaded French class every day, when I would sweat rivers of living water down my sides as the recitation exercise made its way up and down the rows until it came to me. Everyone sighed because they knew I would take so much longer than everyone else, while I tried to force words from my uncooperative mouth.

In college, I had to join in class discussion because the University of Chicago prided itself on small classes with lots of conversation. Sometimes, with the running start seen in “The King’s Speech,” I might be fluent for a few sentences. But invariably I would grind to a halt, utterly tongue-tied before an intractable consonant.

I was humiliated when my grad school adviser recommended speech therapy. How did he know? Strangely, many of us stutterers are in denial. But the speech therapy I received there made no real attempt to cure me, instead trying to help me accept myself. It was a waste of time.

Other speech therapists adopted something like the psychological theory used by the king’s therapist in the movie — thinking the cause of stuttering is childhood trauma. Attempts to help me talk through my supposed traumas did nothing for my speech.

Later in life it dawned on me that many non-stutterers had childhood trauma, and many stutterers did not, or dealt with their traumas in healthy ways.

Real help came only when I discovered as a new assistant professor at Roanoke College that right in my own backyard was a stuttering clinic with reportedly the best fluency rate in the world — 90 percent after five years. My three weeks there were very difficult — 12 hours a day learning how to breathe and feel my throat and vocal cords as I learned to talk all over again. But by the end of the three weeks, I was a new man.

The Hollins Communications Research Institute is based on a neurophysiological approach. Its founder and director, Ronald L. Webster, believes that the source of stuttering is a physical defect in the network between the brain and the organs of speech — something like a learning disability. HCRI’s approach uses behaviorist methods, teaching clients to repeat the same sounds thousands of times until new neural pathways are formed. We gain new neural and muscular memory so that fluent speaking becomes a learned habit.

The telephone no longer scares me. I don’t anymore turn down invitations to give papers at academic conferences because I am afraid. I have spoken frequently on radio, sometimes on TV and lecture around the United States and abroad. I thank God for one of the best-kept secrets of the Roanoke Valley — the Hollins Communications Research Institute .

HCRI Contact Information:  Phone: 540-265-5650  Email:  Address: 7851 Enon Drive, Roanoke, VA 24019  Web: