Finding the words to break free of stammering

When he’s not appearing in the West End, Gareth Gates is helping fellow stammerers stop their stuttering. Catherine Scott speaks to him and those he has helped.

When Liam Pogson was just nine years old he watched a stammering Gareth Gates become runner up in Pop Idol and it changed his life.

“I thought if he can go on television and sing to millions of people with a stammer then I can make my dreams come true too,” says Liam, now 20.

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Few could fail to have been moved by Gareth as the Bradford 17-year-old struggled to even say his name to the panel of judges on the ITV talent show which was eventually won by Will Young.

Now, ten years on, Gareth shows little sign of the stutter that blighted his early years and made him pretend that he had forgotten the name of his school rather than reveal his stammer.

Occasionally there is the tell-tale accentuated breathing which is the key to the intensive McGuire programme which Gates says gave him back control of his life and he admits that in certain situations he can still struggle. And now he has chosen to show how he helps others overcome their stammer. On Monday night a BBC 3 documentary Stop My Stutter sees the singer, actor and qualified McGuire coach take five young men and women who have stammered since childhood and transform their lives. Over the four days the group live and work together during a course designed to help them confront their stuttering demons. Gareth, along with a team of McGuire coaches, all reformed stammerers, guides the group through a tough regime of exercises, tasks and challenges designed to help the stammerers control their stubborn stutters.

Among them is Simon Robinson from Skipton who has stammered his entire life.

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He blocks on every word and his aim is to be able to say his wedding vows and to read bedtime stories to his two young children. The results are remarkable.

“It is not a cure,” says Gareth, who now lives in London with his wife and young daughter, although he comes home to Bradford once a month where he has a performing arts academy.

“It is a way of getting back control of your speech and changing your life as I changed mine. You do have to work on it every day.

“Even now I stillhave bad days when I am over-doing it or I haven’t done the breathing exercises. Hopefully this documentary will give people an insight into something that most take for granted – speaking!”

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Liam Pogson knows all too well what it is like to have your life taken over by a stutter, locked in a world where it was virtually impossible to communicate properly.

“All my life I have had a stammer and it affected me really badly,” explains Liam. “I wasn’t able to communicate with my parents at all. It was very isolating.”

Like Gareth, who pretended he couldn’t remember the name of his school, Liam would ask for a bus fare to Ravensthorpe because he knew he couldn’t say Mirfield.

“I wasn’t really bullied. My friends accepted me and at high school I developed a way of hiding it.” He wouldn’t speak unless he really had to, and even then avoided words he knew would make him stutter. He was what is called a covert stammerer, where stammerers are able to hide the condition by avoidance and tricks, similar to Sarah, one of Gareth’s proteges in Stop My Stutter.

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“The covert stammerer is a lot harder to help,” says Gareth.

Instead Liam would spend hours in the gym. But when he enrolled on a sports course last year to enable him to fulfill his ambition to become a personal trainer he realised he had to do something.

“I had to take part in group discussions and give presentations which I just couldn’t do. There was a lot of banter and I had lots of things I wanted to say, but I couldn’t say them. You feel really lonely because you think you are the only person who has got a stammer. On the outside I’d always tried to be happy, but on the inside I was a broken man.”

Liam says the effect of a stutter isn’t just on the stammerer.

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“I got really angry at my parents; I seemed to take it out on them which was really bad, but I was so frustrated.”

Eventually, last February, his family spotted an advert for the McGuire programme.

“There was an open day at Bradford Library and all the tutors spoke about how stuttering had nearly ruined their lives. It was amazing. They talked about how they had managed to take control of their lives. They all spoke so confidently; I thought it was a dream.”

After discussions with his family Liam signed up for a four-day McGuire programme in Wigan last June.

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“My stammer was the worst it had ever been. You had to introduce yourself to the instructors. It took me about half-an-hour to say my name.

“The first two days were the hardest days of my life but the third and fourth were the best days of my life.”

The end of the four days involved going out in public and speaking to 100 strangers. something Liam could never imagine doing just days earlier.

“The course focusses on the physical aspects of a stammer. You learn to speak a new way using the costal diaphragm and also about the psychological aspect of a stammer. It puts you back in control of your life. It was amazing but the hard work really started after I got home.

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“It would have been easy to go back to speaking as I had done before, but then I would have been back to square one.”

Liam still has to speak and breathe in a very deliberate almost robotic manner and he is aware that it could take ten years of constant practise to speak normally.

“I know it is not a cure and I do have bad days, but I have done things I would never have thought of doing. I have given talks to schools, and churches and even at the Galpharm Stadium in Huddersfield after I received an award for outstanding achievement.”

And Liam’s dreams are already coming true. He now works as a fitness instructor at the Galpham Stadium.

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And although all his achievements are down to his hard work and determination, Liam doesn’t forget the influence Gareth had on him.

“I actually met Gareth last year after I’d done a speech in Cardiff. He came over and said ‘well done’. It was amazing. He is now a West End star and just shows what you can achieve.”

Although overcoming his stammer is a daily battle, Liam believes it has made him a stronger person.

“I don’t think people realise just how much not being able to speak affects someone’s life and the people around them.”

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As for Gareth he is about to tour the UK in a production of the muscial Hair.

“Being a McGuire coach give me the chance to give something back,” he says.

Stop My Stutter, BBC3, Monday, February 27, 9pm.

No known cure for stuttering

One per cent of people in the world are afflicted with stuttering – 66 million worldwide. There is no known cure for stuttering. There are many therapies available but they require hard work and perserverance.Different people stutter to varying degrees. Some hide their stutter very well, these people are known as covert stutterers. Four times as many males are affected than females.

Generally people do not stutter when they sing, whisper or speak in chorus. Famous stutterers include Winston Churchill, Marilyn Monroe and Bruce Willis.