Stammerers speak up about gaining control of their words

I DEFY anyone who sees The King's Speech not to break out in an adrenalin-fuelled sweat of empathy as they struggle with Colin Firth, playing the future King George VI (or "Bertie"), to perform his duty and address a crowd of expectant subjects. He is literally speechless, unable to utter his opening words. The crowd quivers, willing him on, and the cinema audience is equally tense.

Those who know a lot about stammering say they have been greatly moved by the film – which goes on general release on January 9 and has already received seven Golden Globe nominations – which they say portrays the stammering experience with great authenticity.

Colin Firth had quite a feat to perform – learning first to stammer, then how to try not to stammer, all the while avoiding appearing in any way bogus.

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As the film unfolds, Bertie, who never expected to be King, is suddenly thrust onto the throne after his brother Edward VIII's abdication. The pressure to address his stammer and lead his country confidently as world war looms becomes all the more urgent. Bertie is taken on by the controversial Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue.

It would be unfair to describe how it all turns out, but suffice to say Bertie and Lionel become lifelong friends through their therapist/client relationship, despite some of the apparently ludicrous methods Logue adopts.

Unlike most other disabilities, in popular culture stammering is often considered to be a legitimate target for mockery and pastiche, or associated with mental instability.

Think Open All Hours, or crime series including the celebrated Cracker, where a psychopath was given a stammer. People who stammer often report being laughed at, bullied, cruelly mimicked and otherwise abused.

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Before the age of psychoanalysis, when everything "wrong" with a child was considered to be the parents' fault, it was thought for a long time that the problem was mechanical, and operations were performed on the tongue, often cutting part of it away.

Nowadays brain scanning has led to an understanding that when a child starts to stammer – perhaps at three or four years old – something happens in the brain. During fluent speech, brain activity in a stammerer is just like that of any other fluent speaker; when they stammer, suddenly the other side of the brain becomes much more active, showing some underlying physical cause.

Research into the complex question of why people stammer is ongoing, but it is known that they don't stammer because they are neurotic or anxious.

Steve Taylor, a 37-year-old from Harrogate who runs his own specialist car sales business, has stammered for as long as he can remember. At school he avoided activities like drama, and he dreaded reading aloud. "When I had a new teacher and they didn't know, it was awful and I'd get a terrible gut-wrenching feeling," he says.

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"But then I would explain, and they'd let me do my reading alone later. I was a good footballer, so I had friends. But if other people laughed at my stammer I'd get embarrassed, then really angry and hit them.

"I occasionally saw a school speech therapist and things would improve a bit. There have always been peaks and troughs, and how badly I stammer is linked to how confident I'm feeling."

After school he worked as a graphic artist but the job didn't last. He went to work in the parts department of a motor business, which involved a great deal of phone work. When he could not immediately reply to callers because of his stammer, they would sometimes slam the phone down or simply laugh.

"That kind of thing just takes you back to childhood, in the playground with bullies making fun of you and you wanting to punch them."

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Steve wanted to work in car sales, but he recognised that – not just for professional reasons – he needed specialist help in learning how to control his stammer. About 12 years ago he started seeing consultant speech and language therapist Dr Trudy Stewart, who's based in Leeds.

"The stammer was very limiting", says Steve. "It would make me avoid certain activities, situations and words.

"If I went into McDonalds, for instance, I would come out with just a bag of chips because I couldn't manage to say 'Big Mac', and then I'd get very upset. I felt it was really getting in the way of living my life properly."

At first Steve had one-to-one sessions then attended regular group meetings. Managing a stammer involves being given a toolbox of techniques to do with breathing and exercises in how to approach speech, and the support and confidence gained by talking about experiences, progress and feelings.

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Clients are taught to tackle the stammer head-on, deliberately using words that historically cause them trouble, but using the methods learned, to enable pronunciation.

Steve's stammer still goes through peaks and troughs, as he calls them. It hasn't stopped him getting married and having children or running his business.

Meeting someone new is stressful, until eye contact and rapport are established, and he gets the measure of whether they might show some amusement at his stammer. Tiredness has an effect, and if he has to make an important work call first thing in the morning, he'll ring his wife for a quick chat first, "to get things going".

Gareth Gumbs says he grew up not realising that he had a stammer because no-one talked about it.

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The 30-year-old from Leeds moved with his family to St Kitts in the Caribbean when he was very young, and he did his secondary schooling there. He was bullied on a regular basis, but thought it was "just about being me, as I had no idea then that I was different... I think my family just didn't view it as something to be concerned about, it was just part of me".

He applied for a job on-air at a new radio station and didn't get it. He worked in the station library instead, and moved into presenting a late-night show.

When he moved back to Leeds, he worked as a technician at Yorkshire Television, by which time he had become aware of his stammer and felt it was "an albatross" impeding his progress.

"It seemed to get worse the more important the situation", says Gareth.

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"I would accept the blame for something going wrong that wasn't my fault, just because I couldn't say the words to explain. I became known as a great listener because I'd avoid speaking, and when I did I would have three other words ready to use instead of the one I knew would be difficult."

In 2004, Gareth decided to go to university and study sound design for film and TV. He also started seeing Trudy Stewart for help with his stammer.

"I'd got to the stage where I felt I couldn't advance without tackling it. I learned ways of making difficult areas of speech for me easier, but she also helped me to confront all sort of fears and feel more comfortable in my own skin."

Gareth now has his sights on becoming a music producer, and despite meeting me for the first time, he barely betrayed any trace of a stammer.

Impact of stammering on daily life

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Stammering is a severe communication disability which impairs social, emotional and educational development.

It can cause social isolation, anxiety and depression.

It frequently becomes a focus for teasing and bullying.

Stammering conceals intellectual ability and affects educational choices and attainment.

In chronic cases, it may play a significant part in a person's ability to achieve their potential and to make their full contribution to society

It affects all socio-economic, cultural and ethnic groups, and usually begins in early childhood.

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It has an incidence of five per cent, and a prevalence rate of one per cent in the school age and adult population.

More males than females stammer (4:1)

Upwards of 50 per cent of people who stammer have a relative who stammers. Current research suggests that underlying genetic, linguistic and psychological factors predispose some children to stammer.

NHS Leeds has just announced that a Northern Stammering Centre will open in Leeds next April – the only one of its kind outside London's Michael Palin Centre – which will offer equitable specialist services to children, young people and adults from across the North of England.

The centre will be based at The Reginald Centre on Chapeltown Road, near the centre of Leeds, and will be delivered by NHS Leeds Community Healthcare's Children's Speech and Language Therapy Service.

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