'The King's Speech' Passes Stutterers The Mic

The film The King's Speech tells the story of King George VI and his struggle to overcome stuttering. It has shed new light on the experiences of many stutterers. Speech pathologist Kristin Chmela and writer Dan Slater about share their struggles with stuttering.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

In the film "The King's Speech," speech therapist Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush, receives a very special patient who stutters.

Mr. GEOFFREY RUSH (Actor): (As Lionel Logue) What'll I call you?

Mr. COLIN FIRTH (Actor): (As King George VI) Your Royal Highness, then sir after that.

Mr. RUSH: (As Logue) How about Bertie?

Mr. FIRTH: (As George VI) Thats what my family used to say.

Mr. RUSH: (As Logue) In here, it's better if we're equals.

Mr. FIRTH: (As George VI) If we were equals, I wouldn't be here. I'd be at home with my wife, and no one would give a damn.

Mr. RUSH: (As Logue) Well, please don't do that.

Mr. FIRTH: (As George VI) I'm sorry?

Mr. RUSH: (As Logue) I believe sucking smoke into your lungs, it will kill you.

Mr. FIRTH: (As George VI) My physicians say it relaxes the throat.

Mr. RUSH: (As Logue) Well, they're idiots.

Mr. FIRTH: (As George VI) They've all been knighted.

Mr. RUSH: (As Logue) It makes it official, then.

CONAN: Colin Firth plays King George VI in "The King's Speech." Speech pathologist Kristin Chmela watched much of that movie in tears. It brought back memories of her struggles.

If you stutter, how does that affect your life? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Don't worry, we'll give you all the time you need to talk. You can also send us an email, talk@npr.org. Or join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Damian Kulash, Jr., of OK Go and new models of music marketing. But first, speech pathologist Kristin Chmela, a fluency specialist and clinical trainer, joins us from member WBEZ in Chicago. Nice to have you with us today.

Ms. KRISTIN CHMELA (Speech Pathologist): Thank you so much. It's so nice to be here.

CONAN: And did the movie get it right?

Ms. CHMELA: Well, did the movie get what right?

CONAN: The stuttering?

Ms. CHMELA: I think that the movie has made some tremendous contributions to our understanding of stuttering and also to public knowledge about stuttering. I think that it's a very deep movie. I'm looking forward to seeing it again and again. The movie got a lot of things right about stuttering.

CONAN: Including the, I guess, a couple of different schools of treatment. One, the one they make fun of, the failures that Bertie goes through with the conventional speech therapist and then the more psychological approach with Lionel Logue.

Ms. CHMELA: Sure. When I saw the movie, I guess what I felt was right about it was that I felt that the relationship between the clinician and Bertie was extremely important and was really the foundation of the change that he was able to make. And that still holds true today.

That was one of Dr. Gregory(ph), my former mentor, my late mentor and dear friend, that was one of his basic principles was the relationship between the client and the clinician. And how, over time, Bertie learned to face the next challenge in terms of working on his speech.

And he - the only thing that happened with Bertie is that he had given his power away, and he learned how to get it back. So I thought that those messages were very clear in the movie.

Of course, there were lots of things that are different today about what we do in treatment, but I thought the messages were very clear.

And the other one that I loved was how they filmed it. When he was stuttering and they put the camera as if the viewer of the movie was the person stuttering so that you could watch the reactions of the people listening, that look in their eye, the shift in their body language.

That is something I think all stutterers recognize. And I thought that was extremely powerful to get a sense of what that might feel like when you're watching people watching you, and you cannot speak.

CONAN: And you, did you ever experience that?

Ms. CHMELA: A million, trillion times throughout my whole life. And I think that for me, what brought the tears during the movie was probably less of remembering those experiences, because I think I've really healed from them.

I think what brought tears for me was the feeling of joy that I was able to work and work hard, just like Bertie did, and face my fears over and over again and to feel that joy of being able to get that power back. And also, the joy for so many of my clients who have been able to do that over time. It was a tremendously moving experience for me.

CONAN: And one of the things I learned was it was not one breakthrough. It was over and over and over again.

Ms. CHMELA: Yes, and each little breakthrough got him closer to being able to learn what it meant to stop giving his power away. And what I mean by that is that internal strength and ability to have your voice and to speak what you want to say, whether you're stuttering or not. And, of course, being in what I call that conversation box with the listeners, looking them right in the face as you're talking.

CONAN: We want to hear from stutterers today about how the condition has affected their lives, 800-989-8255. And again, we'll give you time to talk. Email us if you prefer. That email address is talk@npr.org. You can also go to the website at npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Steven(ph) is with us from Toledo.

STEVEN (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Steven.

STEVEN: Hi. I love the show. I listen every day. I just want to start this off by saying I've never once called in because I do stutter, and I do not feel comfortable on the phone like this.

But no, I want to say, I actually just went through an experience with - my girlfriend wanted me to meet with one of her friends and go on a double date. And I tried to get across to her that to me, people personally, in a very personal, formal setting, is just - it's very - sorry, nerve-wracking because, like, I feel those eyes on me.

Like, I feel - you know, when I try to think of myself as a very knowledgeable person. Like, I try to stay up on news. I listen to your program every day. But I feel, when I stutter, I feel those eyes on me, and I feel people looking down on me and wondering about my intelligence level, about my physical being and stuff, and it just - and it becomes a nerve-wracking event.

And all weekend leading up to this dinner, it was only getting worse and worse and worse, to the point where I was having stomach pains. And I got through the event, you know, okay. But it's a fear in the back of my head that I have nonstop.

And I think that - I haven't seen the film, but from what you were just talking about, about how the camera would switch to show people staring at the character. And it sounds like it's dead on. Like, you know, even - I have friends who say, oh, I don't even notice you stutter. And I say, well, I know. And it just drives me up the wall personally.

CONAN: And it must be difficult, Steven, to go into things like job interviews.

STEVEN: I was just - yeah, Ive flat-out not gotten jobs, and I firmly believe it's because I do stutter. I can't answer a phone. If I answer a phone, I can't say hello, this is Taco Bell. I can't say - I just can't answer phones.

And I had jobs at Blockbuster and stuff where they just wouldn't put me on the phones. And I feel like I stutter - on a scale of one to 10, I'm like maybe a four. I know people who are a 10 who I know that they can't get a job because of it, and it makes me think, you know, I personally, I don't get food stamps, I'm not on welfare, nothing against those that are.

But I know people who get benefits from the state because they're overweight or because of this and that, but this is something that you cannot get the benefit from. And I personally know people who have told me, like, yeah, I can't get -you know, it's so hard to get a job because I can't get a job where I work with customers, I can't get a job where I answer phones. And it directly limits the type of jobs that you can take, I feel personally, and so...

CONAN: Steven, you should not hesitate the next time you want to call in on the program. I think you did fine.

STEVEN: Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: And we wish you the best of luck.

STEVEN: All right, bye.

CONAN: Dan Slater(ph) joins us now from our bureau in New York. He also is a stutterer, a freelance writer, as well, recently wrote about the shame that can come with stuttering in the Washington Post. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. DAN SLATER (Freelance Writer): Hello, Neal, thanks for having me.

CONAN: And I was fascinated by something you wrote about in your piece. As a journalist for six years at the Wall Street Journal, you said it was much easier to do radio interviews than television interviews. Can you tell us why?

Mr. SLATER: Well, I think when you're in front of the camera, you're conscious of every little thing that you do being picked up. There is no way to really act around it when you have a camera in front of you.

You know, like right now, I'm in a radio room and I'm alone, and no one can see what I'm doing. And even though maybe it shouldn't make a difference, for some reason it does, so...

CONAN: It makes a difference because you might - your mouth may be moving in ways that, well, it might get those stares we're talking about.

Mr. SLATER: Exactly.

CONAN: You saw the film, as well. What did you think?

Mr. SLATER: I like the movie. I don't know if it's the kind of movie that you'll see twice. You know, I think it must be hard to write a movie, you know, to hang an entire feature film on one person's speech impediment, even if it is the king of England. And so, I think they did a good job with that.

You know, I would have liked to see a stuttering movie where the stutterer is just a normal person. You know, the problem with making the stutterer the king in a film is that as, you know, Colin Firth says in the clip that, you know, you played, he says: You know, I would not be here if I were not, you know, the king of England because nobody would care.

And that is really the plight of the average person out there who stutters. I mean, the fact of the matters is no one really cares. If you're lucky, maybe you have supportive friends when you're a kid, maybe you have a parent who takes you to a speech therapist at the right age and you learn the ways. But for the most part, you know, the feeling is that you're very alone in the world, I think.

CONAN: How did you work with your problem? You've obviously made a lot of progress.

Mr. SLATER: I think that I, you know, happened to have a lot of friends when I was younger who were very supportive of me and, you know, the ridicule was kept to a minimum.

I had a mother who, you know, saw what was happening early on, and she took me to a speech therapist when I was about seven or eight years old. And, you know, through that year or so of speech therapy, I learned, you know, the tricks, I think is what happened.

CONAN: Kristin Chmela, are they just tricks?

Ms. CHMELA: Well, I think that might be one way of saying it. I guess probably because I'm a speech pathologist, we would call them ways of modifying speech or different types of speech tools.

One of the things that I think is that it's very important to recognize all the different perceptions that may occur from a movie like that. My client Billy(ph) said that, wow, he walked away from the movie and said mom, I think I'm like the king because I'm brave. And I thought that was fantastic.

CONAN: We're talking about stuttering today. If you're a stutterer, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

We're talking about stuttering: the stigma, the treatment and the challenges it presents to those who suffer from the condition. If that includes you, how does it affect your life? Our phone number: 800-989-8255. We've spoken with a number of listeners already. We'll also give you the time you need to talk. Or you can send us an email. That address is talk@npr.org.

Our guests are Kristin Chmela, a respected speech pathologist - and she trains people who work with stutterers - and Dan Slater, editor of LongForum, a website that promotes long-form journalism. He wrote about his experience with stuttering and the shame that often comes with it in last month's Washington Post.

And if - here are some emails, this from Scott in Kansas City: As a lifelong person who stutters - I'm now 50 - I can identify myself as such still. Even though I've had a career as a church pastor, a corporate trainer and a community college instructor, I'm always aware that I can trip over words.

As a pastor, I always wrote out the words I would trip over if I did not see them. As a trainer and college instructor, any lectures avoided words. Fortunately, I was able to set - get my students to do most of the talking.

And I want to ask Dan about that in just a moment, but here's an email from Jake: As a 22-year-old in the military, stuttering has made certain aspects of military life difficult, at times impossible - at least it seems that way.

I've stuttered nearly my whole life, and I learned early on the only way to cope is to learn to laugh at yourself.

Dan Slater, I wanted to ask you about what Scott had written. It does seem that people who stutter often find themselves in situations where they try to avoid certain words.

Mr. SLATER: Hmm. Yeah. I mean, that's, you know, a common thing. And actually, the British novelist David Mitchell, his fourth novel actually fictionalized the stutter that he dealt with when he was younger. And he kind of fictionalizes that concept. You know, the 13-year-old in the novel has a way of talking around the words that tend to trip him up. And, you know, frankly, that's still a technique I use.

I visited a speech therapist recently in the course of writing my article for the Washington Post. And when I confessed that, he said that I needed more therapy because this was not something that a speech therapist would, you know, qualify as a mark of success.

But, you know, I guess it is what it is. I do it, you know, probably several times a day. So...

CONAN: Several times a day. So you do think about this every single day.

Mr. SLATER: Absolutely.

CONAN: Kristin Chmela, do you?

Ms. CHMELA: Do you know what? I did for a long, long, long time, although I have to say that probably in the past three or four years, for a variety of reasons, I really feel as though I'm recovered, and I don't feel like I really think the way that a person who stutters might think.

But that doesn't mean that I don't stutter maybe once a day. And I think that Dan's bringing up some very good points, one which is that stuttering can be defined as a problem we can see on the outside, where we're prolonging or blocking or repeating sounds or syllables.

But there's also an internal part of stuttering, where we can be thinking about what words are coming next. We can try and avoid saying those words. And there's a lot of fear that can be associated with that.

And so I think that therapy that is probably the most effective deals with both sides of that coin, as Dr. Gregory used to say, working on the feelings and the fear, as well as working on ways of modifying speech.

The other point he mentioned was when the king said no one would care, and I love that comment. And the way that I took that was that - I don't even think that it was that anyone else was caring. I think it was that the king cared, really deeply. Maybe he didn't admit that or even know that.

And I feel that that's the way the common person can relate to the king, because he's just a human being like we are, and he cared about the fact that he could not share his soul, especially when he wanted to and needed to. And I think that's a really powerful thing in the movie, to watch how he overcame some of that.

And in terms of being alone, the Stuttering Foundation is an organization with tremendous help for educating people about stuttering, and clinicians. And the National Stuttering Association is the self-help support group nationally that helps adults who do feel alone with stuttering, and children, as well as the Friends organization.

So I think what I was excited about in the movie was that some of this information was going to get out to people who are still struggling so much with communication every day.

CONAN: Let's go next to John, John with us from Wichita.

JOHN (Caller): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi.

JOHN: Listen to your show every day, enjoy it every day.

CONAN: Thank you.

JOHN: Yeah, you're welcome. I had a psychologist give me some good advice that's helped, and that is: Well, if you're going to stutter, be the best stutterer you can because that helps take some of the pressure off internally.

CONAN: And how do you put that into practice?

JOHN: Well, I just - it's not as big a deal as I may think it is on the inside. I mean, I don't talk much in the professional area. I was a field tech, and conversations were pretty thin. And I've always worked in that type of industry. So I didn't have to talk. And the - my friends, I mean, you know, they don't care.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: No, they probably don't.

JOHN: So...

CONAN: Kristen Chmela, is that good advice, be the best stutterer you can be?

Ms. CHMELA: Oh, I think that that can be great advice, and I think that what the psychologist was saying was that accept who you are and accept all parts of yourself. And I think that that's a very important part of healing from the pain that people who stutter go through. I also think that when Steven called in, he took a really big risk. And I think that fear of judgment from other people is very, very normal.

I think we all fear judgment about lots of different things, and one of the things I think that's important is that no matter what - and we tell this to children and to adults - you need to keep on talking. And the second thing is that you need to say what you want. Because when you don't say something the way you want to, you're giving away some of your power because you're not honoring what your thoughts are and you're not sharing your soul with other people the way it really is.

CONAN: John, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

JOHN: Okay, thank you. Bye.

CONAN: We're going to take special time out to read emails today. I think a lot of people may be communicating that way.

Trevor in Baton Rouge: I'm a lifetime stutterer, and so happy to hear this story today. After years of conventional speech therapy, I showed very little improvement. Over time, I augmented my vocabulary to work around the words that were hard for me.

Today, I utilize that vocabulary as a tournament Scrabble player. I've also found my strengths that enabled me to communicate effectively with those around me. I now teach college math and often speak to the public with very little trouble.

Dan Slater, good vocabulary, useful if you have trouble with certain words so you can work on those work-arounds?

Mr. SLATER: Yeah, you know, it's sort of hard to tell which, you know, comes first. Is it the stutter or the vocabulary? But I believe that people who stutter definitely tend to evolve, you know, a vocabulary to kind of deal with, you're always kind of looking for, you know, the synonym of the word that you can't say, certainly.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. You had an experience you described in your story about calling up a girl to go out and speaking with her parents and then laughing at yourself the way our writer from the military did a few moments ago. So you're laughing at yourself, when really they thought you couldn't remember her name. In fact, you couldn't say her name.

Mr. SLATER: Yeah. I mean, you know, sometimes you just have to go with the flow. And if someone can propose a different justification or a different reason for why you stumbled in your speech - and the reason isn't that you stutter - then, yeah. You tend to say: Okay, I'll go along with that, because I would rather be, you know, seen as someone who forgot the name of a girl that I like than be seen as someone who stutters, because let's face it. I mean, you know, what do we think when we see, you know, someone who, you know, has any kind of a speech impediment? We think that, you know - I think that we tend to think that the person lacks intelligence.

I think that is the - you know, and I don't want to be here on national radio saying that because I know it's not positive and I know it's not encouraging, but I think it's also the truth. And I think that is what makes this affliction uniquely, you know, powerful and uniquely challenging to, you know, to get over, is that there's always this idea in your head that, you know, everyone thinks I'm an idiot. Everyone thinks I'm an idiot. And that's partially true.

CONAN: I wanted to follow up, Kristin Chmela, with that. You must deal with this as a professional. Also, you must have dealt with it as a sufferer, as well, the feeling of self-loathing.

Ms. CHMELA: Well, I think that the fear of judgment, that people will assume that you're not intelligent or that you're an idiot or that you're retarded or that you're sort of not all there or something is very, very normal. I think that the way we speak is very close to who we are. It's very personal. And I think that's why lots of times when someone has trouble talking, a person starts chuckling because they just don't even know quite how to deal with that sensitivity.

But what we know is that, as a group, individuals who stutter are very intelligent individuals. And also, we know that stuttering doesn't come from nervousness. A person might stutter more if they're nervous. But what he - what Dan is saying about the way people might perceive stuttering is, at times, true. And we have research that shows that teachers and employers and other individuals don't have a good understanding of this problem.

And one of the things that I feel is that it's very important for all of us to recognize, as clinicians, there's no one right way to be a person who stutters. You know, there's no one right way to be - to get to recovery or to learn to cope with the problem. And what the movie showed - and I believe, Dan, what you're expressing is some ways that you've been coping with your problem - is that it's very important to listen to the person's unique experiences and to help them get to the place now where they want to be if they want to work on their speech.

And there's a lot of pain around this disorder. And I can hear these callers and the things that they're sharing and - but as far as the listener reactions go, I've had people say to me all my life, directly to my face, oh, my gosh. Did you forget your name...

CONAN: Hmm.

Ms. CHMELA: ...when I couldn't get it out right away. I've had people mimic stuttering right to my face when I told them that I worked with people who stutter. And they did that in sort of a mocking way. It was very - it's very interesting to watch people all over the world. And one of the things that I firmly believe is that people who stutter need to teach the world how to be better listeners.

CONAN: Here's a...

Ms. CHMELA: Because if you stutter, listeners have to wait.

CONAN: Here's an email from a listener in California who's asked: Please don't mention my name. I'm ashamed.

Ms. CHMELA: Oh.

CONAN: Stuttering has affected my ability to be a public speaker, express opinions and participate in debate. That's why I always email my question and comments to TALK OF THE NATION. Thank you, Neal, for reading so many of my emails over the years.

This from Maureen: I stuttered as a child, but was able to overcome it. As an adult, when I went to live in Mexico and learned Spanish, all the stuttering came back in a second language. I was eventually able to overcome it again, for the most part.

And this is from Ed in St. Charles in Missouri: I've been a stutterer my whole life. I've gone on to major in communications in college, where I was a DJ for my college radio station. I've had a very successful career in public relations, where being able to speak clearly is part of my everyday work. I also do quite a bit of public speaking. But when I go home for family gatherings, my stutter seems to return. This angers me, and I'm not sure why it happens. I cannot understand why I only seem to stutter when I'm around my family - not my wife and kids.

We're talking about stuttering today with Kristin Chmela, who's a speech language pathologist at the Chmela Fluency Center in Long Grove, Illinois, and with Dan Slater. He's a freelance writer and editor at LongForum. And he wrote about stuttering, his experiences, for The Washington Post.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And I - Kristin Chmela, I wanted to ask you about that last email from Ed. I only stutter when I'm around my family, not my wife and kids, but the family he grew up with.

Ms. CHMELA: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: Is that unusual?

Ms. CHMELA: That does not surprise me. I think that when I was working very diligently on my speech, which started at about the age of 19, on up from there, I think my family, probably, they were the last people that I could be fluent in front of or work on my speech, modifying it.

And, you know, we don't know a single cause of stuttering. We know it's - the development occurs with the combination of genetics and neurophysiology, as well as environment. And it could be that when he goes home and he's around his family, some of the stress of that environment maybe is a factor in that. It could be that when with your family, you're just absolutely who you are and your guard is sort of let down. I have worked very hard on some of my pragmatics of my own communication, like taking better turns and not talking so much.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. CHMELA: And I feel when I get with my family, I kind of revert back to a lot of things that I don't really do when I'm not with my family. So...

CONAN: Well...

Ms. CHMELA: ...I think that happens sometimes, and I think sometimes talking about it openly can start making a shift.

CONAN: Let see if we can get one more caller in. Let's go to Heidi, Heidi with us from Glenwood City in Wisconsin.

HEIDI (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

HEIDI: Hello. I'm almost 40 years old. I work at a nearby neighborhood nursing home. And I've stuttered my whole life. And I've never been in therapy. And I figured out a way how to speak without stuttering. And sometimes, it comes off abrupt, sharp and I've been reprimanded for it. And I guess, basically, that's one of the negatives of how it has affected my life.

CONAN: What do you mean upbraided for it? Because you can sound abrupt because of the way you've learned to cope with your problem and people say wait a minute, don't be so short with me?

HEIDI: Exactly. Exactly. I have been written off. I've been threatened to be dismissed, fired. This is inappropriate behavior. And, yeah, that's just one of the things that I have to deal with.

CONAN: Has therapy ever been an option for you?

HEIDI: I think when I was a child, no. As an adult, I had what I thought would overcome it. And I've accepted myself for the way that I am. And this is really my only stumbling block with it, is how my employers interpret me.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

HEIDI: And one part of me says, well, that's not really important. I am who I am. And I'm not short and I'm not abrupt. And this is, in one way, a disability. And I'm working with it, and I would like them to be more patient with me, too.

CONAN: Kristin Chmela, we just have a few seconds left, I'm afraid, but is there something that might help Heidi?

Ms. CHMELA: Well, what I think is that I like the fact that you are recognizing how your stuttering might be impacting you and that sometimes what's best is to be honest about that. And I want everyone to know that we know so much more now about stuttering than we've ever known.

There's such a thing as board-recognized fluency specialists, and you can get a referral list for that. We are continuing in our training efforts of clinicians. We've got stuttering camps. I know we have one in Michigan that I'm involved with, and one in Chicago. And I want people to know that they can find the help that they need and to keep searching and to keep talking and to keep teaching people how to listen better.

CONAN: We thank Heidi for her phone call. Our thanks, as well, to Kristin Chmela and to Dan Slater, our guests today.

Coming up, the rock band OK Go dropped its record label, embraced the Internet and, well, succeeded.

Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION.

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