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EWU program helps stutterers thrive

UPDATED: Mon., July 24, 2017

Kunal Mahajan, an investment banker who works in New York City, has tried many times to perfect his speech.

But when he’s working in a high-stress environment – with tight deadlines, rapid transactions and a full slate of presentations and meetings – the words don’t always come out right.

“All of those things are not conducive to someone who stutters,” Mahajan said.

Over the past two weeks, he and seven other stutterers from across the country participated in an intensive speech therapy program at Eastern Washington University. At 31, he’s the oldest of the group. The youngest is 13.

The annual “stuttering boot camp” is led by EWU instructors and clinicians, most of whom are graduate students in speech pathology. With a price tag of $3,000, it’s a significant investment for people who are serious about learning to live with their stutters. Many said they have faced self-doubt and ridicule because of the way they talk, not to mention everyday challenges like making phone calls and placing drive-thru orders.

Unlike other programs, this one does not aim to get rid of participants’ stutters or make them “fluent.” Instead, the goal is to help them accept and manage their stuttering over the long term, while boosting confidence through individual and group exercises.

“It’s kind of like going to the gym,” said Mahajan, a fitness enthusiast. “You have to keep working at it in order to make gains. You’re never going to have a perfect body, just like you’re never going to permanently get rid of your stutter.”

As Kim Krieger, the director of the program, put it, “We don’t believe there’s a cure.”

By stutterers, for stutterers

Dorvan Breitenfeldt quit school after the eighth grade because his stutter was so severe he couldn’t participate in class or start conversations with his peers.

“I lied,” said Breitenfeldt, now 87. “I told people I quit school because my parents kept me home on the farm.”

But a few years later, he returned to school as “the oldest freshman” in his Minnesota hometown. By his sophomore year, he had completed a speech therapy program at the University of Minnesota – twice – but managed to speak fluently only for a few months.

“Unfortunately, I left with as much stuttering as I came with, and I realized then that it was going to be a lifetime task,” he said.

Breitenfeldt graduated from high school at 21 and then pursued bachelor’s and master’s degrees in speech pathology at the University of Minnesota. He also joined the Navy ROTC in hopes of becoming a second lieutenant.

“Of course, the military didn’t want to commission me because regulations at that time said officers could not be stutterers,” he said. “So I recall having to give a presentation in front of a couple majors and a captain, drilling some cadets out on the field at the University of Minnesota.”

After earning his degrees and proving he could give orders, Breitenfeldt went on active duty as the Korean War drew to a close.

He later earned a doctorate and became a professor at EWU, where in the ’60s he created the Successful Stuttering Management Program. He retired 22 years ago, still lives in Cheney and gave opening remarks for this year’s group of program participants.

“All the time, stutterers say, ‘Gee, I could do so much more,’ ” Breitenfeldt said. “I could be a lawyer. I could be a minister. I could do more things in my life if my stuttering didn’t hold me back.’ ”

Changing perceptions

Stuttering affects about 1 percent of the world’s population, or 3 million people in the United States. Four out of five stutterers are male, and no one is sure what causes the disorder. It could be a mix of psychological and neurological factors.

Treating a stutter is not like treating other speech and language disorders. A child who can’t pronounce his Rs, for example, can learn that skill over time.

“Stuttering is more of a long-term program where you focus on managing it long-term,” said Craig Coleman, a fluency specialist with the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, who is not involved in the EWU program.

That means building confidence and ditching conversational crutches that stutterers often rely on, like avoiding eye contact, or skipping or replacing difficult words.

The EWU program also teaches participants to “advertise” that they stutter when making introductions. Anxiety can make a stutter worse, and many get anxious when trying to hide their stutter.

“Telling people that you stutter is really important,” said Jason Young, who has been through the program and now helps lead it. “Once you get that out there, the weight is off the person not to stutter.”

One unique aspect of the program is that, in addition to classrooms and clinical settings, stutterers are sent to practice speaking in real-life situations at places such as malls, restaurants and movie theaters.

This year, they attended a dinner with Toastmasters, a public speaking group. And every year they participate in team-building and confidence-building exercises at Adventure Dynamics, a ropes challenge course near Riverside State Park.

Last week, the group split up for individual therapy sessions in a science building on the Riverpoint campus. Tim Kinkaid read a letter he had written about the challenges of being a stutterer. Others practiced making phone calls to stores in the area – gripping some with a familiar dread.

“It’s not the ringing,” said Ryan Beam, 25, of Tacoma. “It’s just knowing that someone is going to answer.”

Several participants said they had completed similar speech therapy programs in the past with little success. The reason, they said, is that they felt pressured to permanently eliminate their stutters, rather than work through them.

Andre Clark, 21, went through the EWU program three years ago and comes back each summer as a volunteer. He recalled a humiliating experience on his first day of seventh grade in Coeur d’Alene, when his teacher asked each student to stand up and give an introduction.

“I stuttered and couldn’t even say my name, and people just thought it was hilarious,” he said.

Clark said experiences like that used to make him depressed, but the program helped him realize that others generally care little about his speech.

“It changed my perception of how people perceive me,” he said.

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