By Joanna Becket
Belleville retiree Ron Day has finally spoken out about his life-long struggle with stuttering.
Stuttering has never been something people talked about. But The King’s Speech changed all that.
The film, launched last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival, stars Colin Firth in a true life story about the British monarch King George VI and the speech therapist who helped him find “his voice” (played by Geoffrey Rush). It won four Academy Awards, including Oscars for best picture and best actor.
But it also raised awareness about stuttering.
“Now, it’s no longer a secret,” said Day. “People are talking about stuttering. Something had to trigger it and The King’s Speech triggered it like nothing else.”
When he first heard about the film, Day hoped The King’s Speech did for stuttering what A Beautiful Mind did for paranoid schizophrenia, helping to dispel myths and change perceptions by showing the human side of what is medically termed a disorder.
Day stuttered all of his life until, after retirement 20 years ago, he took a month-long program of speech therapy at the Ottawa Regional Rehabilitation Centre with speech pathologist Marie Poulos.
“I’ve spent my whole life looking into speech therapy,” said Day. “This is the program that worked for me. They gave me the tools. They laid down what I need to do.”
Day said even effective therapy has its limitations. “You can’t say you’re cured. You’re never cured. It’s the wiring in your brain. It’s not something you do. It’s who you are.”
Now an active member of the Canadian Stuttering Association (CSA), Day has attended more than 25 conferences focused on stuttering in Canada and leads workshops that address challenges stutterers face.
“The workshops aren’t therapy. People compare notes. Everybody tells their own story.
No two stutterers are alike. Some people stutter only when they talk to strangers, some only when they talk to family.”
Day said his involvement with the association has been a rewarding experience. “It’s unbelievable what took place so quickly. It’s like a new life for me.
So often people don’t know what to do when they retire. The worst thing that ever happened to me is that I stutter. Who would have thought that stuttering has become my salvation. It’s given me the opportunity to do something worthwhile.”
The King’s Speech brought the discussion into the open, said Jaan Pill, CSA’s co-founder and acting co-ordinator.
“In the past it’s been the case that we’ve had a conspiracy of silence on the subject of stuttering,” said Pill. “This movie has made it a topic that people feel freer to speak about.
People who stuttered in movies were usually the butt of jokes. In this case, it’s a person of courage facing a challenge and dealing with it. That’s something everyone can relate to.
“The film has offered us the opportunity to engage in the sharing of accurate information about stuttering and one researcher I’ve spoken with has said that it’s the biggest event in terms of public education about stuttering she’s seen in her lifetime.”
Stuttering affects about 337,000 Canadians, Pill said. One in 20 are children, primarily boys, and most outgrow it. One in 100 stutterers are adults.
Pill said it’s a myth stuttering is caused by some psychological problem. Research suggests a neurological cause. But stutterers often develop psychological problems
such as frustration, lack of self-esteem and social isolation.
Pill said he started stuttering at age six. He didn’t get relief for 35 years until he attended a three-week clinic at the Institute for Stuttering Treatment and Research in Edmonton.
“One of the most salient features of stuttering is avoidance of speaking in public situations. Stutterers might not engage in small talk, or ask questions in class, all those things we take for granted if we’ve had command over our speech.”
Parents concerned about their child’s stuttering should get an assessment by a speech-language therapist. Therapists are available through provincial associations or through the Canadian Association of Speech Language Pathologists and Audiologists.
Pill said although most children will grow out of it, he urges parents to get help for their children early to avoid the social consequences like bullying.
Pill said people can help by maintaining eye contact when talking to a person who stutters. “When the listener looks away it tells the person who stuttered they’re no longer full-fledged members of the human race.
“Let the stutterer finish his or her sentence. The listener needs to slow down a little and let the person who stutters finish what they have to say.”
Will this film change the public’s perception of stuttering?
“We certainly hope it will,” adds Pill. “We don’t know what the long-term impact of this film will be, but we’ve had extensive, highly positive and accurate media coverage as a result of the film, and it gives us hope.”
“I don’t go back. I go forward,” said Day. “Stuttering isn’t just a mechanical thing. It’s a state of mind.”
For information on the Canadian Stuttering Association: