Freshman computer science major Dev Kavathekar's speech impediment used to be not only something to hide, but also something to deny to himself.
"When I was a sophomore in high school, I was kind of shy and I didn't have that many friends," he said. "I feel, for me, that accepting it is the first step and accepting that you stutter is a huge deal. If I do that completely, I can move on and not feel the embarrassment of stuttering."
This university's hearing and speech sciences department is at the forefront of stuttering research and assistance, and thanks to limelight from director Tom Hooper's Academy Award-winning The King's Speech, it has recently garnered attention from news outlets such as The New York Times and PBS's NewsHour. But even before stuttering became film-worthy, the department's group therapy program had been helping Kavathekar and others realize they are not alone.
"It personally gave me ... confidence in myself to speak fluently in front of people," he said.
The King's Speech, a depiction of King George VI's struggle with his stutter amid a looming World War II, swept the awards for best picture, actor, original screenplay and director at Sunday's Oscars. Hearing and speech researcher and lecturer Vivian Sisskin said those who suffer from stuttering — which affects about 1 percent of the population — stand only to benefit from the film's prominence.
"This is the biggest thing that's happened to the stuttering community that I can remember," Sisskin said. "Not only is it attention to stuttering, but it's positive attention for the first time."
Sisskin said the perception that stuttering is mere anxiety has long needed to be shattered.
"The stigma of stuttering comes from people thinking that people stutter because they're nervous and because they're insecure and because they lack confidence," Sisskin said. "But they stutter because their brains are wired this way."
Sisskin and hearing and speech sciences department chairwoman and researcher Nan Ratner, an international award-winning researcher and author of A Handbook on Stuttering, know that stuttering can be painful academically, socially and vocationally.
She and the rest of the hearing and speech department work with about 2,000 patients per year in LeFrak Hall to combat the hardships.
"The fact is that stuttering, for the person who does it, is not something to laugh about. It's very painful; it's being blocked and choked. It physically feels terrible," Ratner said. "They feel that there's something shameful about the stuttering. Because stuttering doesn't happen on every word, on every sentence, there's a sense that if the person only tried a little harder, everything would be fine, but that's not true."
Although there's no quick fix to stuttering — which Sisskin said is a neurological disorder with a likely genetic component — therapy can make the impediment barely noticeable, depending on the person. In therapy, Ratner and Sisskin teach their patients how to stutter fluently.
"There's help on campus," Sisskin said. "We focus on communication and developing a comfortable, forward-moving speech pattern. We particularly help with the fear of speaking and the fear of stuttering and the shame that goes along with that."
Freshman fire protection engineering major Steve Ernst said therapy at this university has calmed his anxiety and given him self-confidence.
"Before I did speech therapy, I always thought about what I was going to say and made sure that I could say it because I didn't want to show stuttering," he said.
"But once I met Ms. Sisskin, I learned to conquer my fears of speaking, and now I barely think of stuttering. ... Being in this stuttering group has helped me to open up to more people and make more friends and become more of who I am."
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