Darlene Foster used to hate talking. When she attended Howard University as an undergraduate, she dropped a class she had an A in because she found out she had to do an oral presentation.
But now she has a much different approach.
"I see these situations and I choose to stay," she said.
Foster is a speech pathology graduate student who stutters. But since the fall of 2004, she has been getting help from an on-campus therapy group that provides support for those who share her disorder.
Stuttering is a disorder of fluency, said Vivian Sisskin, an instructor and clinical supervisor at the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences. Its symptoms include repetition of sounds, syllables or words and prolongation of sounds. People who stutter can experience silent blocks, which is the inability to say anything at all, she said.
"The most interesting thing about stuttering is that the general public knows nothing about it," Sisskin said. "Awareness is very low. Even the kids I work with, their parents don't know about it."
Sisskin, who has been supervising the therapy group since 1997, said the disorder might affect about 1 percent of students at the university. That number has probably remained stable over the years, she said.
Foster said she enjoys coming to the group therapy, which is offered by the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences. She joined after hearing about it at a meeting held by the National Stuttering Association.
Before her first session years ago, she used to avoid social situations as much as possible.
"I would not answer the phone at all," she said.
Sometimes, Foster had trouble saying her own name. She said that when someone asked her who she was, she would answer with a name that was easier to say than her own.
"I would go, 'Joanne,' or something like that," she said.
But after attending therapy, Foster said she is having much less trouble with her speech. Talking to people is not something she runs away from any longer.
"Darlene, you do stutter, so go ahead and stutter," she says to herself.
There is currently just one stuttering therapy group operating at the university, Sisskin said. In previous semesters, Sisskin would usually run two or three, but a lot of students from previous years have graduated, she said. This year's group has five clients, including three students and a Maryland graduate. They meet every Friday morning for a two-hour session. Each session costs $40, but students pay half price.
During each session, four things generally happen, Sisskin said. First, each client is evaluated. Then, clinicians work with the clients on practicing techniques to improve their speech. This is followed by a discussion on how to manage stuttering in real life and how to accept the disorder. Finally, clients are given assignments to work on outside of the sessions to improve their speech and confidence.
Sisskin said she has her clients purposefully stutter in front of people they talk to in order to help them confront their embarrassment.
"Voluntary stuttering allows the person to do what he fears the most," she said.
The goal of therapy is to get people who stutter to speak freely without worrying about their disorder, Sisskin said.
"On their own, people learn coping mechanisms that lead to more struggle," she said. "Part of the success in being in therapy is becoming your own clinician, so that you can help yourself in the outside world."
Pete Glaros, a junior history and studio art major who attends the therapy group, said the assignments given at the sessions are helpful.
"It's hard but necessary if you want to get better," he said.
Glaros joined the group after his mother read about it in a newspaper. He said his disorder has been difficult for him.
"I can't say exactly what is on my mind, so I don't sound intelligent," he said. "I hate myself when I stutter."
But after two sessions with the therapy group, Glaros said he already feels improvement.
"I probably would have gone earlier if I had known about it," he said.
Daron Bolat, a youth pastor at St. Mary's Armenian Church, is a university alumnus who stutters. He has attended the group sessions off and on since the fall of 1996.
"I definitely believe in this program and this approach to stuttering," he said. "I had other therapies but I think this one is the most effective... My attitude has changed a great deal. I no longer fear speaking in situations and I am more confident in my speech."
For more details about the stuttering therapy group, contact Vivian Sisskin at (301) 405-4232.