BRAVE TALK : Tired of Slurs, Stutterers Are Beginning to Speak Out--Difficult as It Is for Them

Times Staff Writer

For a group of men and women who have spent most of their lives dreading--and even avoiding--such simple tasks as talking on the telephone or placing a fast-food order, they were an unlikely band of protesters.

But the 10 members of the Orange County chapter of the National Stuttering Project who protested the movie "A Fish Called Wanda" outside MGM the day before the recent Oscar ceremonies were prepared to have microphones thrust in their faces and field reporters' questions.

It wasn't easy stepping out of their own "comfort zones," protest organizer Ira Zimmerman of San Juan Capistrano said afterward, "but we felt the message was so important that we had to risk it."

Their message was eloquently simple: The treatment of a character who stutters in "A Fish Called Wanda" was "cruel and demeaning" and an insult to all people who stutter.

It is a message that the 4,000-member, nonprofit National Stuttering Project has been putting out since the hit comedy was released last summer. But in March, as the Academy Award-nominated film was rising to the top of the video rental charts and reaching an even larger audience, it was a message that the Orange County NSP contingent believed needed to be heard again.

This time loud and clear.

"This really took an awful lot of courage from all of us who were out on the picket line," said Zimmerman, 48, who has been stuttering since he was 4. "It was the last resort and, indeed, we took many hours agonizing over whether we should go through with this. The biggest fear we had was that we'd end up looking like fools because of the way we speak or the way the media would handle it."

MGM officials refused to comment on the protest and ignored the group's demands, which included displaying a disclaimer on future showings of "A Fish Called Wanda" saying that audiences should not draw from the film any negative inferences about people who stutter.

But if they failed to make an impact on MGM, the Orange County NSP chapter succeeded in raising public and media awareness about a speech problem that affects an estimated 2.4 million Americans.

After winning an Oscar for his "Wanda" role, actor Kevin Kline was peppered with questions about the stuttering controversy. And the day after the Oscars, "Entertainment Tonight" called Zimmerman for an interview.

It took the Rockwell International engineer several days before making up his mind to brave the network TV show's cameras.

"NSP members from all over the United States have been calling me, with pride, I guess; we were acknowledged," Zimmerman said. "We're hoping the protest raised consciousness concerning the feelings of people who stutter, and we hope that when Hollywood looks again at doing another comedy which involves anybody who stutters, that they will not treat it in the same manner."

Protester Annie Bradberry of Corona, a longtime NSP member, said she was surprised at the number of positive phone calls she received from fellow stutterers.

"I feel that just 10 of us were able to speak out for over 2 million people," the 30-year-old Bradberry said. "I felt like we stepped out of our little nest. We always think of how we're going to change world opinion in the comfort of our small group and here we took it out into the public eye."

Providing a non-threatening and comfortable setting for people who stutter is at the heart of the monthly NSP chapter meetings. In Orange County, that means the North Tustin-area home of chapter president Dr. Richard Brauer.

The words did not come easily.

Pausing at times, her eyes fluttering and her breathing heavy as she struggled over troublesome words, Deanne Simmons of Huntington Beach was explaining why she joined the Orange County NSP chapter in 1983.

For years, she said, she avoided talking on the telephone, and in school she always refused to speak in front of the class. "It was something I just would not do," she said.

"In high school, usually my teachers went along with it," but in college she found less understanding. One teacher told Simmons that if she didn't do the required speaking assignment she would give her no higher than a C.

Simmons said she took the C.

"What's neat about the meetings is, before joining the NSP, I thought I was the only one with certain experiences," said Simmons, 39, a legal secretary. "And the more you talk to people who stutter, you find we have so many experiences in common."

Simmons and chapter member Claire Byrne of Fountain Valley had arrived at Brauer's home early for the recent Saturday evening meeting, which included a talk by George Shames of the University of Pittsburgh. The renowned speech pathologist, who created the Stutter-Free Speech Program, demonstrated his new invention, the Vocal Feedback Device, which helps stutterers gain control of their speech.

Brauer, himself a stutterer, said he has watched both Simmons and Byrne "grow" over the years.

"Claire sat there and would never talk," he recalled. "Deanne has had her ups and downs, and there were times she came and wouldn't speak either."

"A couple of years ago, I went to speech therapy, a 3-week program which I learned about through the NSP," Simmons said. "My stuttering used to be 10 times as bad as now." She laughed: "Or a hundred times."

Byrne, 36, said the group has boosted her self-confidence.

"It makes you think if there's something you want to do, you can do it as well as anyone else," she said. "I used to feel negative--and I still do sometimes--but the NSP makes you feel you can be whatever you want to be."

"This is a forum that's very non-threatening," Brauer said, "and therefore you can work on your (speaking) techniques and the more you work on it here, just talking to other people, the more you loosen up."

Getting a person who stutters to the first meeting is the hard part.

NSP executive director John Ahlbach said he still receives requests for information from people who ask that he mail it back in a plain brown envelope.

"It's something they feel guilty about," Ahlbach said in a phone interview from NSP headquarters in San Francisco. "They feel stuttering is something they should not be doing and that's the tragedy of it. It's as if somebody was hard of hearing and felt guilty about it.

"A lot of people who stutter, if somebody mentions it, will do anything to deny it because they have attached a label to the problem, which includes, 'If you stutter, you're a little less intelligent, a little less confident' and so on."

Stuttering is believed to affect about 1% of the adult population. But while current research points to biochemical abnormalities as a possible explanation for the disorder, the cause of the speech impairment that has afflicted such historical figures as Aristotle, Clara Barton and Winston Churchill remains unknown.

The National Stuttering Project, which now boasts 75 chapters around the country, was founded in Oakland in 1977 to serve as an educational resource and referral service for people seeking professional help. (Further information about the Orange County chapter of NSP is available by calling Brauer at (714) 838-1444.)

The monthly chapter meetings provide a supportive environment where people who stutter can learn to communicate more effectively and explore their feelings and attitudes about the problem.

The point, Ahlbach said, is for people who have a stuttering problem to know they are not alone. "Many of the letters I get mention that very thing: 'Thank God I found you because I felt like I was alone my entire life with this problem.' "

Ahlbach, 37, who formed an NSP chapter in San Francisco in 1977, said he didn't confront his own stuttering problem until he was 21.

"I think the most important thing support meetings do is give a person a chance to get his or her doubts and fears out in the open," he said. "It's a place where they can stutter and feel all right about it."

Speech pathologist Shames lauds the NSP.

"It's very valuable because they get to share with one another their experiences, and they need to have a place where they can really relax and be open with each other and talk with each other and be helpful with each other," he said in an interview. "It's a marvelous adjunct to therapy, I feel."

Shames, who praised the Orange County NSP chapter as "the group that stormed the MGM gates" during his talk, said the NSP also serves as "watchdogs for society."

"I think what they did (on 'A Fish Called Wanda') was great," he said. "I saw that movie. I was offended, but I didn't do anything. They did. That's great. But beyond that . . . they get together and they share their feelings about things that they're doing."

Through the years, the NSP successfully lobbied to have stuttering cartoon character Porky Pig removed from ads for the Massachusetts State Lottery. ("We've tried to fight Porky Pig wherever we can," Ahlbach said.) The organization also voiced its objections to a car commercial that joked about a stuttering parrot, and it helped spur Congress to enact National Stuttering Awareness Week (this year, it is May 8 through 14).

Despite those activities--and the high-profile "Wanda" protest--Ahlbach said the National Stuttering Project is not an activist group.

Its primary emphasis is education.

The NSP publishes educational pamphlets and cassette tapes on topics ranging from what teachers can do to help the child who stutters to how to react when speaking to someone who stutters.

Letting Go, the group's monthly newsletter, features members reflecting on their lives as people who stutter and talking about what is working for them and what isn't. Letting Go Jr., a new newsletter for elementary school-age students, offers advice and information for parents and speech pathologists working with children.

"Letting go," Ahlbach said, is what the NSP is all about.

"Since stuttering isn't a problem that has a cure or a final solution, what we're about is living with it as best we can and also learning to control our speech as best we can," he explained. " 'Letting go' seems to reflect the idea of letting go of fears, of letting go of the guilt that we've lived with. Those kinds of attitudes are the ones that work."

Ahlbach said one of the biggest misconceptions about stuttering is that it is a nervous disorder of some kind--that it is the result of how the person feels about himself or the world that is causing the lack of fluency.

"It's not surprising," Ahlbach said, "because that's what stuttering looks like--that there's an emotional struggle going on. In my mind, stuttering should be placed in the category of a physical impairment. Some people are visually impaired and some people are hearing impaired. We're speech impaired. It's how we deal with the impairment we have that influences what effect it's going to have on our life."

According to the NSP, stuttering usually begins between the ages of 3 and 5; the ratio of male to female stutterers is 5 to 1, and about 4% of children exhibit stuttering to some degree. And, Ahlbach said, "since 1% of the adult population stutters, we can see that more than half of children 'outgrow' their problem. However, it's also known that those children who exhibit more severe stuttering are less likely to outgrow it."

There are more than 40 different types of speech therapy available, and the NSP does not advocate any particular type. Regardless of which speech program a stutterer undertakes, Ahlbach said, the individual must be ready to change and be ready to work on improving his or her speech.

"What I tell somebody when they ask me to recommend a program is that any constructive or ethical program that they take is only as good as they are: that therapy doesn't matter, really," he said. "There are a lot of therapies that are going to give you more control over your speech, but they are not going to do that for you. Every therapy takes an incredible amount of work and discipline and 'letting go.' "

And the NSP chapter meetings aid the process of "letting go," he said.

While longtime members often don't attend every meeting, he said, "it's the initial meetings and support someone gets that is the most crucial because here they're coming from a place where they've really never talked to anybody who has stuttered before. A support group can change their life."

Brauer, who has a family practice in Irvine, said he was a severe stutterer when he joined the Orange County NSP chapter in 1983.

"I consider it one of the turning points in my life," said Brauer, 61, who still has a mild stutter. "Before that, I was very retiring. I would hardly talk to groups at all and it even kind of interfered with socializing."

Although he said his stuttering never interfered with his practice, Brauer found that ordering at a drive-through restaurant was always "a major confrontation." Usually, he said, his son would have to order for him.

Brauer still occasionally has a difficult time getting the words out when he is in the supermarket and is asked whether he wants paper or plastic bags.

But since joining the NSP, he said, he has been attending a speech-communication class at Rancho Santiago College in Santa Ana where he learned such techniques as how to slow down his rate of speaking and how to blend one word into the next.

He said the NSP helped him learn that "stuttering is nothing to be ashamed of" and that it's important "to let it hang out. The more you expose yourself and take risks like that," the better.

Annie Bradberry is another member who says she has come far since joining the chapter in 1982.

At the time, Bradberry said, she would have her husband and friends make all her phone calls. After undergoing an intensive speech therapy workshop in the early '80s that greatly improved her speech, she landed a secretarial job answering telephones for a furniture-finishing manufacturer. She is now the company's West Coast branch manager.

"It (the NSP) forced me to use all that I learned in my speech therapy and got me involved with phones and the public eye and made me feel good about my speech," she said. "I still stutter a little bit daily, but I don't mind that at all. It has made me see that other people change incredibly, getting their first job in their 30s and making their first phone calls in the group. If I didn't get involved in this group, I don't think I'd be where I am today. I'd probably have fallen back to my old patterns. It forced me to do things."

Desmond Mahoney, 35, of Santa Ana is another longtime member who is doing things.

In fact, he couldn't make it to the recent meeting: The golf-equipment salesman was competing that night in a division-level Toastmasters speech contest.

Like speakers who must work to improve their eye contact or work on their gestures, Mahoney views his stuttering as just another obstacle to work on in order to be an effective speaker. He often uses the chapter meetings to practice his Toastmasters speeches.

"I feel a tremendous affinity with the group," Mahoney said. "And we've been able to give each other quite a bit of support. It's encouraging to see other people who also have a speech impediment and any time we can support each other, it encourages us to continue reaching outward to work on our speech impediment.

"Not to seem evangelical, but it's a kind of a good feeling of camaraderie," he added.

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