By Dr. Courtney Byrd, Executive and Founding Director of the new Arthur M. Blank Center for Stuttering Education
A little over 25 years ago, when I was an undergraduate student majoring in speech-language pathology, I had my first clinical experience with a person who stutters. His name was Kevin. He was 13 years old.
My supervisor advised me to teach Kevin strategies exclusively focused on eliminating his stuttering and teaching him to speak with as near perfect fluency as possible. Kevin listened intently to every direction I gave him. He would record himself and bring the tapes back for review, and would consistently express frustration that any gains he achieved in the clinical environment could not be transferred into his every day life.
When I shared Kevin’s frustration with my supervisor she told me, “Kevin is a teenager and this pattern is typical of teens who stutter – they never practice as much as they should,” but I knew that Kevin was practicing even more than I asked him.
During one of our final sessions, I remember Kevin crying, telling me he had done everything he was told to do and begging me, “Why am I still stuttering?”
Kevin was crying out for help, and the only answer that I had was “you need to practice more.” His pain still haunts me, and it is what drove me to explore alternative approaches to treatment that would ensure no other child had to experience the heartache he did.
Even though I did not have the skills to help Kevin, I did hear and will never forget every word he said to me.
My supervisor advised me to the best that she could based on the substandard training she received as a student, and the cycle was surely set to repeat itself with me and my future students, had I not taken time to listen to Kevin and every single person who stutters I have worked with in the 25 years since.
Today, I am profoundly grateful to share that the legacy grant we have been awarded from the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation will help us to amplify Kevin’s voice, as well as the voices of children, teenagers, and adults around the world who stutter.
The Arthur M. Blank Center for Stuttering Education and Research will be an overarching infrastructure that will expand the vision and work of the Michael and Tami Lang Stuttering Institute, the Dr. Jennifer and Emanuel Bodner Developmental Stuttering Laboratory and the Dealey Family Foundation Stuttering Clinic in the Moody College of Communication at The University of Texas at Austin. We will be able to scale our programming nationally and worldwide, including providing our intensive therapy program for children who stutter, Camp Dream. Speak. Live. in Texas and other key states across the nation as well as in additional international locations.
Funding from the Blank Foundation will also build out our present clinical and research staffing infrastructure as well as support the establishment of satellite centers so that we can generate more knowledge and provide more services, and train more students from all backgrounds, training that will foster a global pipeline of clinical and faculty experts, which in turn will increase access to quality care for ALL people who stutter.
I have no idea where Kevin is today, but if I had the chance to speak with him, I would tell him that I am so sorry for failing him. I would tell him that I wish I would have known that I could have taught him to communicate more effectively. I wish I would have provided him with opportunities to desensitize himself to his stuttering. I wish I would have taught him how to talk about his stuttering in a way that mitigates the stereotype. I wish I would have taught him the importance of mindfulness, acceptance, and self-compassion.
And, above all, I wish I would have given him hope for his future, by instilling in him that it is ok to stutter, because fundamentally it is ok to be different.
The most heartbreaking and most common theme I have learned from listening to what is now thousands of people who stutter is that they often give up on their personal and professional dreams because they are convinced that those dreams would only be attainable if they could somehow learn to speak without stuttering.
Our approach runs counter to this assumption as rather than teaching people who stutter to speak in a controlled, artificially fluent manner, we empower persons who stutter of all ages to speak confidently, communicate effectively, and advocate meaningfully such that the overall quality of their lives, and the extent of their future aspirations are not and never will be defined by whether or not they stutter when they speak.
And, once they truly accept that it is ok to stutter, their life begins to change in profoundly positive ways. In short, they begin to Dream. Speak. Live.
People often ask me, “Why is it that the people who complete your treatment programs are still stuttering?” It’s an interesting question, and, my response is that if your personal metric of communication effectiveness requires every human to speak the same way, then you will never appreciate the importance of authenticity and individuality to quality of life.
Dr. Courtney Byrd is Executive and Founding Director of the Arthur M. Blank Center for Stuttering Education and Research. She is a leading scholar, pioneering practitioner and award-winning professor at The University of Texas at Austin in the Moody College of Communication, where she is also Chair of the Task Force on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences.