Education

The smooth talk that overcomes a handicap

Werner Bartsch February 5 1979
Education

The smooth talk that overcomes a handicap

Werner Bartsch February 5 1979

The smooth talk that overcomes a handicap

Education

"Trying to speak in front of l00 classmates in law school was a classic pressure situation for me," says Lloyd Sarginson, 30, a Toronto lawyer. "I'd spend more time worrying about how much I'd stutter than about what I'd say."

For some 200,000 Canadians who stutter this is not an uncommon predicament. Nor was the feeling unknown to Moses, Demosthenes, Charles Darwin or Winston Churchill. They too suffered from this mysterious and stubborn affliction.

In the past, stuttering has been next to impossible to “cure” and exasperatingly quick to recur. Lloyd Sarginson has been fortunate to live in a different era. With the help of a newly developed “fluency shaping program” at the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry in Toronto, he is one of more than 150 stutterers learning their way out of their problem. In the process, they become their own therapists. Now, a year after the intensive three-week course, Sarginson speaks not only more smoothly, but more often. “There are very few pressure situations left,” he says.

The Clarke’s three-year-old program shows the new direction speech therapy is taking. “More and more therapists are moving toward behavioral techniques,” says Dr. Robert Kroll, head of speech pathology at the Clarke. “This is

not the classic behavioralism of conditioning and stimulus response. It’s more a question of teaching and learning.” Dr. Kroll explains that in the introspective ’60s finding the root cause was all the rage. When that did little more than produce a large number of “well-adjusted” stutterers, says Dr. Kroll, therapists began to look to more concrete techniques. The new approach shows so much promise—the institute claims 75 per cent of its patients are well on the road to fluency—that Kroll and a colleague are developing a speech-analysis kit. The kit will prepare clinicians and stutterers for all forms of behavioral therapy “by showing them what the stutter consists of when broken down into bits and pieces.”

The Clarke course is based on a model assembled over the past decade by Dr. Ronald Webster in Roanoke, Virginia. By defining stuttering as a learned behavior, it virtually ignores the quagmire of psychological analysis on which traditional therapies depend. Instead it uses videotapes, stopwatches, an electronic voice monitor and hours of repetitious practice. Students relearn how to make sounds, much like a child learns to speak. Speech is deliberately slowed

down until every syllable is held for two full seconds. Mmmmmmmyyyy nnnaaammme iiiiiiiiissssssss. . . Kroll explains that since speech requires careful co-ordination of breathing, vocal folds (the vibrating valves which produce sounds in the throat), lips and tongue, slowed speech lets students feel and understand how sounds are made.

It also lets them tackle one element at a time and produces a surprising side effect—almost all stutterers are immediately fluent. As the course progresses, so gradually does the speed of speech increase. Normal speech, however, might in some cases not be realized until after the course is over.

A key to opening the stutterer’s block lies in Webster’s discovery that practically all stutterers start their vocal fold vibrations much too abruptly. This causes them to snap shut and block the air flow. Enter the voice monitor, a little black computer which analyses the very first sound made. If it’s gentle enough, a green light flashes on. Abrupt or forced sounds won’t trigger the light.

By the third day students are spending five or six hours a day with the voice monitor, endlessly repeating vowels, consonants and finally words and sentences.

“The work with the monitor was the most frustrating part of the course,” says Sarginson. “But fluency is impossible without it.”

Since stutterers are notorious for their inability to transfer clinical fluency onto the street, real life practice takes up a third of the course. It’s in public, after all, that stutterers feel their handicap so acutely. “Like most,

I’m best with kids and dogs,” says Jim Proctor, former president of the Toronto Council of Adult Stutterers, “but I’m convinced it’s largely a problem of confidence.” ^

Proctor, 55, has had many theftapies: insulin shock treatments after the war, desensitizing therapies to ease the fear of stuttering and most recently the Clarke program. His biggest problem has been retaining the smooth speech that came so easily during the threeweek program. “I was lulled into a false sense of fluency,” he says.

“Relapses are a persistent problem and can be avoided only through continued application of the correct speaking techniques,” says Kroll. “There is no magic, you have to do it all yourself.”

For former stutterers like Lloyd Sarginson the extra effort is a small price to pay. “Even when I was stuttering I was always concentrating and worrying about my speech,” he says. “Now at least the concentration is constructive.

I’ve got the fluency I want 95 per cent of the time.”

Werner Bartsch