Frustrating stereotypes and barriers to professional opportunities are just a few challenges endured by stutterers
Illustration by James Yang
Mike Schultz is an unquestionably bright young man. He has an engineering degree from Michigan State, a master’s in speech pathology from Purdue, and is completing studies at the University of Michigan to become an OB-GYN.
Yet, as a lifelong stutterer, the 32-year-old medical student is accustomed to being viewed in a certain negative light. “During clinical rotation, I sometimes have a hard time introducing myself to patients,” he says. “First impressions are very important because you’re trying to gain a patient’s trust, and on these occasions I’m afraid I’m getting off on the wrong foot.”
It can be just as bad at the grocery store. “I have a problem with my B’s and D’s,” he says. “I might ask someone where the baking soda is, but I just can’t say ‘baking.’ The common reaction is to suddenly treat me very kindly, even walk me over to the aisle.”
Schultz usually laughs off such patronizing. But he prides himself on his intellect, and it can be frustrating being thought of as “slow.”
Stereotypes are something all stutterers must endure. Whether it’s Stuttering John conducting a celebrity interview on Howard Stern’s radio show, Porky Pig stammering “Th-th-th-that’s all folks!” in a Looney Tunes cartoon, or Michael Palin playing a severe stutterer in A Fish Called Wanda, the speech disorder has long been a staple of pop culture — used as shorthand for “incompetent idiot,” Schultz says. More realistic portrayals, such as Colin Firth’s performance as the stuttering King George VI in the film The King’s Speech, are rare.
“What non-stutterers don’t realize is the mental gymnastics a stutterer goes through when carrying on a conversation,” says Dr. Shelly Jo Kraft, Ph.D., a speech pathologist who teaches at Wayne State University. “There is an incredible amount of cognitive effort.”
Many become conditioned to stamping their feet, swinging their arms, blinking their eyes, or grimacing in order to “force out” a stuck word. “It’s called ‘secondary behavior’ and it makes you look a lot worse,” Schultz says.
Curiously, in the early 1900s Detroit was a center for “the correction of defective utterance.” Employing such pseudoscientific techniques as “regenerating the respiratory system,” private operators like the Frank A. Reed School for Stammerers and the George Lewis Phono-Metric Institute promised to “cure” a highly heritable and very puzzling disorder.
Studies show that about 5 percent of all preschoolers stutter, but in four out of five cases the condition will disappear, largely on its own. “If you’re still stuttering at 8, you’re going to stutter for the rest of your life,” Kraft says. “There will be fluctuations — you’ll have good stretches and bad days — but at that point it’s permanent.”
About 1 percent of the population stutters. That percentage generally holds true around the world, with race and environment playing no role. The estimated 100,000 Michiganians who stutter are just as likely to live in a suburban McMansion as an inner-city flat. What binds them is the feeling of shame or anxiety all have felt at one time or another, often to the detriment of social relationships and professional opportunities. Many date sparingly or choose jobs that don’t require interaction with the public.
Tanya Banks was in third grade when she first realized “something was different” about her. “I didn’t know what it was,” says the Livonia mother. Her father was tight-lipped about his own stuttering.
“Basically I was on my own,” she says. “I grew up dreading to go to school. I didn’t like to read in front of the class. It sounded like I didn’t know the words. It really held me back. I didn’t socialize. When I got older, I wouldn’t apply for jobs that required me to talk on the telephone.”
Then, as now, public schools offer free government-funded speech therapy to students. But Banks — feeling confused, bashful, and a bit stigmatized — didn’t take advantage of it.
Once she became an adult, she found the cost of private sessions prohibitive and that her insurance carrier, like many, didn’t cover them.
Therapy is important, Kraft says, because a competent therapist “can set up communication strategies that help a person take more control of their stuttering.”
Management includes identifying and addressing certain stressors associated with speaking, as most people who stutter discover a correlation between their anxiety level and fluency.
Banks found help at a chapter of the National Stuttering Association, a self-help group for people who stutter. “It really was eye-opening,” says Banks, who attends monthly meetings at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak. “I was socializing with others who spoke like me.”
After 16 years of encouragement, advice, and feedback from her peers, Banks is confident enough to work on the phones at a local fitness center — “something I never would’ve considered before,” she says. Banks still has trouble with her L’s and N’s, and probably always will. “We all go through what we call ‘blocks’ — a day or a week. But you just have to get through it. I know I’m not the only one out there.”
There is no known cure for stuttering. Kraft, whose research specialty is genetics, is convinced there will be a scientific breakthrough. “It won’t be a magic pill, or like taking some kind of antibiotic,” she says. The advance likely will involve gene therapy, using cellular DNA to encode a therapeutic gene to replace the mutated gene.
For now, people who stutter continue to look to therapists, each other, and the calendar, as they often find that the severity of their condition diminishes with age. “Self-acceptance is the key,” Schultz says. “Over time you come to understand that, while you may be a stutterer, you can also be an effective communicator.”
The Wayne State University Speech and Language Center offers speech-language services to the public through its Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. Call 313-577-3339 for more information. To inquire about local support groups, contact the National Stuttering Association at 800-937-8888 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.