The King’s Speech Raises Awareness of Language and Speech Disorders
by Carla Andrews-O-Hara
COLLEGE PARK, Md. - Every once in a while a film grabs your attention and holds you captive. Through story, imagery, and emotion it touches the very heart of the human condition. The King’s Speech, the story of King George VI’s struggle with stuttering in the years leading up to World War II, is such a film. At the 83rd Annual Academy Awards, the film was nominated for twelve Academy Awards and won four, including Best Picture. But the attention the film has drawn to stuttering will soon pass and the media will move on to the next big thing. Not so for the professionals working in the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences who have dedicated their lives to making a difference to people with language and speech disorders like stuttering.
Nan Bernstein Ratner, Ed.D., CCC-SLP and Vivian Sisskin, M.S., CCC-SLP are among those making a difference. They are leading experts on stuttering and through their comprehensive approach to speech-language pathology they combine state-of-the-art teaching, research, and clinical services to help people develop strategies to better manage their speech, while also building their confidence.
Ratner and Sisskin are quick to point out that there are a lot of misconceptions about stuttering, including the idea that stuttering is a result of a traumatic childhood.
“There is no cure for stuttering,” Sisskin points out, “but there are ways to manage your speech. This isn’t just about hiring a ‘speech coach,’ it’s about long term therapy built on outcomes that we hope last—and that takes time and thoughtful attention.” Sisskin shared the following insights in a recent National Geographic article entitled: The King’s Speech—The Stutter Truth:
•In The King’s Speech, Colin Firth’s character concludes that early traumatic experiences and neglect may have been the source of his stuttering. While experts are still unaware of its exact cause, they have ruled out “deep-seated emotional conflict” as a trigger for stuttering. In fact, feelings of anxiety, tension, and fear of speaking are likely the result of stuttering, not its cause.
•Fifty to sixty percent of people who stutter have a genetic predisposition to stuttering, suggesting that it is a kind of neurophysiologic disorder that runs in families. In fact, it is relatively common for children to experience some form of stuttering, and eighty percent of them recover without any help.
•In the film, the king tries a variety of unconventional methods to improve his speech, including stuffing his mouth with marbles, shouting swear words, and rolling around on the carpet. While these methods rarely exist in practice today, some of the film’s other linguistic exercises are indeed effective. For example, breaking sentences into smaller linguistic units, reducing time constraints, and heavy pausing and phrasing are helpful in inducing temporary fluency in speech.
• When treating patients who stutter, there are two main goals in therapy: First, working on motor aspects of speech in order to move toward the ultimate goal of comfortable, forward-moving speech; second, tackling the psychological constraints that result from stuttering. People who stutter tend to perform what is known as “mental gymnastics,” going to great lengths to avoid communication. It’s important that those who stutter learn to stop hiding and overcome feelings of embarrassment, frustration, or incompetency.
In a New York Times article Ratner supports these insights by stating that, “While communication disorders and speech delays may be predicted from a baby’s babble or developmental trajectory, we really have not been able to find indicators of stuttering before the first day it emerges. Everything looks fine and suddenly it doesn’t look fine. That’s why some psychologists in the last century proposed, wrongly, that stuttering was caused by early childhood trauma, or poor parenting.”
"What The King's Speech got right is that stuttering is a lot more than just repeating words. It’s much more about being ‘blocked’—wanting to say something but unable to get the words out." Ratner said. "It's very debilitating; it's actually a handicapping communication disorder."
Language and speech disorders can cause tremendous emotional turmoil resulting in a lifetime of struggle. The King’s Speech helped raise awareness and as David Seidler, Academy Award winner for Best Original Screenplay, stated at the Awards Ceremony, “I accept this Award on behalf of all the stutterers throughout the world. We have a voice, we have been heard.”
Ratner and Sisskin have recently conducted numerous interviews with a variety of media outlets including ABC News/WJLA-TV7, National Geographic Magazine, Agence French Presse (AFP), Voice of America, YahooNews.com, LiveScience.com, New York Times, and others; many of which are also accessible online.
The University of Maryland’s Hearing and Speech Clinic at College Park has provided speech, language and hearing services throughout Maryland and the D.C. metro area since 1949. Located in LeFrak Hall, the Clinic is operated by the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences as both a training and research facility of speech-language pathology and audiology services to over 2,000 people per year. Clinic facilities include several modern research laboratories that provide the latest and most technologically advanced services, including group therapy for stuttering.