Geoff Johnson: Stuttering can be overcome, but don’t ignore it, either

More than 70 million people worldwide stutter, which is about one per cent of the population. In Canada, more than 300,000 people have this all-too-evident speech disorder.

Stuttering is common among young children and is regarded as a normal part of learning to speak. Young children might stutter when their speech and language abilities aren’t developed enough to keep up with what they want to say. Most children outgrow this developmental stuttering.

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Sometimes, however, stuttering is a chronic condition that persists into adulthood. This type of stuttering can have an impact on self-esteem and interactions with other people.

At its most obvious in recent weeks is the high-profile problem with which U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden sometimes struggles during his speeches. It is a struggle he has fought since childhood.

Biden, a 2020 Democratic hopeful who has led some national polls in recent months, revealed in an interview with The Atlantic that he has dealt with stuttering since he was a child, when he used to feel shame in high school and experienced bullying.

Like any disability, stuttering is likely to bring out the latent cruelty of the not-so-well-hidden schoolyard bully.

Stifling laughter, the Fox News host Steve Hilton narrated: “As the right words struggled to make that perilous journey from Joe Biden’s brain to Joe Biden’s mouth, half the time he just seemed to give up with this somewhat tragic and limp admission of defeat.”

Former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders also appeared to make fun of Biden over a moment at the December debates last year. Sanders seemingly imitated a stuttering child in a tweet during the debate, writing: “I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I hhhave absolutely no idea what Biden is talking about.”

Stuttering, also known as stammering, is a speech condition in which the flow of speech is disrupted by involuntary repetitions and prolongations of sounds, syllables, words or phrases as well as involuntary silent pauses or blocks in which the person who stutters is unable to produce sounds at all.

Some people, who in their ignorance are derisive of stuttering, probably don’t realize that a long list of celebrity actors and public speakers struggled with and eventually overcame the problem.

Marilyn Monroe developed her trademark breathy style of speech as a way to combat her stutter. Julia Roberts stuttered when she was growing up, as did her brother Eric. Other actors who struggled with stuttering and speech impediments include Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis, as well as Emily Blunt.

James Earl Jones, the unmistakable voice of Darth Vader, said: “Stuttering is painful. In Sunday school, I’d try to read my lessons, and the children behind me were falling on the floor with laughter.”

Several musicians have also struggled with stuttering. Kylie Minogue and Elvis Presley both started singing as a form of speech therapy to help with their childhood stutters.

Oasis songwriter Noel Gallagher went through four years of speech therapy to treat his stutter. Coldplay singer Chris Martin had a stutter growing up and he still occasionally stutters.

Winston Churchill, whose stutter was particularly apparent to 1920s commentators, was one of the 30 per cent of stutterers who have an associated speech disorder — a lisp in his case — yet Churchill led his nation through the Second World War.

Tiger Woods told 60 Minutes that he had to work really hard to overcome his childhood stutter.

“The words got lost, you know, somewhere between the brain and the mouth. And it was very difficult, but I fought through it. I went to a school to try and get over that, and I just would work my tail off,” Woods said.

King George VI, who ruled from 1937 to 1952, hired speech therapist Lionel Logue to enable him to speak to his Empire, and Logue effectively helped him accomplish this goal. The story was the subject of the movie The King’s Speech.

Rowan Atkinson is an English comedian, screenwriter and actor who created the hesitantly spoken character Mr. Bean. Atkinson included his stuttering in his work by using over-articulation to overcome problematic consonants.

James Stewart was an American film and stage actor whose stutter was a signature trait of his work.

Childhood stuttering should not, however, be ignored. Untreated by a competent speech pathologist, childhood stuttering creates problems communicating with others, being anxious about speaking and low self-esteem.

Several different approaches are available to treat children and adults who stutter. Speech therapy, as one example, can teach a child to slow his or her speech and to speak very slowly and deliberately at the beginning of speech therapy.

Over time, the therapist can help the child work up to a more natural speech pattern.

Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.

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