“The King’s Speech” is officially the Oscar winner for this year’s best film, but what I love most about the movie is its effect on people who stutter.
“The King’s Speech” is a catalyst for bringing stuttering out in the open. A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a crowd of people who, with the exception of a few, were strangers to me and to each other. After I mentioned that I specialize in treating people who stutter, the topic of “The King’s Speech” came up. A man in his seventy’s mentioned that he had just seen the movie. From the one sentence he said, I realized that he stutters, so I asked him for his reaction to the film. In his reply he answered, “Actually I once stuttered….”. Later, a woman who knows him well told me that she had never before heard him discuss stuttering. In fact, she said that this man hardly ever speaks in a social group setting. Due to the film, on that evening, this person who still has the remnants of stuttered speech did both. I think that story sums up why I vote for “The King’s Speech” as the best media happening of the decade for people who stutter.
There are some negative aspects of “The King’s Speech”. The movie does mention many of the false beliefs people have that relate to stuttering. It does seem to reinforce the fallacy that stuttering is a symptom of emotional issues. Would that the world knew that fear of speaking is a natural reaction to the difficulty in speaking, and not the other way around! Bertie’s feelings were so normal and appropriate. At the same time, Bertie is a great example of a person attempting to deal with these feelings and overcome his fears in order to function well in his life and role as a King and as a person.
Hopefully most viewers will understand that the therapy techniques shown in the movie are not necessarily accepted today. However, while watching the film, I cried inside, because as a science, stuttering has not progressed nearly enough since those pre-WWII days. People who stutter are still being asked to do things that are sometimes ineffective, sometimes a ridiculous waste of time, and sometimes even detrimental. The shaking, dancing, rhyming, putting marbles in the mouth, and smoking for relaxation that we saw Bertie being asked to do are not techniques used today. However, other techniques that are equally far removed from learning to produce natural automatic speech are still being used. To me, this is a sad and painful state of affairs. The time has come for us to use more than intuition when treating people who stutter. Researchers are doing great work in learning more and more about stuttering. Therapy must incorporate these findings.
The New York Times recently published an article about research in stuttering. In the article they quoted Dr. Ann Smith explaining, “Speaking involves brain areas responsible not only for language, but for hearing, planning, emotion, breathing and movement of the jaw, lips, tongue and neck. While some researchers are considering all these aspects of speaking, most therapies do not consider stuttering as symptom of dysfunctional system. So often, instead of working to change how the brain functions, therapy comes down to learning motor controls or trying not to stutter by doing what Bertie did: bouncing or gliding through words, using light contacts, slightly prolonging sounds, emphasizing speech sounds and pausing after saying a word or two.
There is a science of speaking. It is time that this science guides therapy approaches. Bertie’s speech therapist gave him wonderful emotional support. That, of course, is important to the therapeutic process. However, I believe clients want more than emotional support. They also want to change themselves into people who can speak with ease. This is the best catalyst for becoming a self-confident speaker.