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Stammerer Ashley Morrison gives his view on The King's Speech

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Steven Williams | 15:41 PM, Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Colin Firth in The King's Speech

As a lifelong stammerer, I am delighted at the amount of publicity surrounding the film The King's Speech and Colin Firth's superb portrayal of the angst, fear, tension and embarrassment felt by 'Bertie' - also felt by stammerers on a daily basis. An intensely moving and emotional film, there are some comical scenes too - mainly those showing the unorthodox therapy techniques used by speech therapist Lionel Logue.

Therapy for stammerers has moved on considerably since then. Today there are a number of electronic devices that are available to help but how successful are they? Altered auditory feedback (AAF) devices work on the principle of replicating the so-called 'choral effect'. When stammerers speak (or sing) in unison with other people, the stammer usually disappears. Certainly that is true for me. Ask me to recite The Lord's Prayer alone and you'll be praying for salvation before too long; ask me to recite it along with the rest of the congregation and you'll never know my dark secret.

These devices attempt to replicate the choral effect by playing back the stammerer's speech through the earpiece fractionally after they have spoken and/or at a different pitch, depending on how they are configured.

Two of the most common devices are the VoiceAmp and the SpeechEasy, both of which I have tried. The SpeechEasy costs in excess of £3,000, although funding can be obtained via the Access to Work scheme. Cosmetically, it is nicer to use because it fits discreetly into the ear like a hearing aid. But it's not possible to alter the settings yourself so you have to take it back to the supplier to do it for you.

The VoiceAmp starts at £595 for a basic model, which is roughly the size of an average smartphone and comes with a very obvious earphone and microphone on a cable. On the plus side, it does come with software which means that it is fully customisable at home. There are also extras one can purchase, such as a wireless option which costs a further £455.

But did they work? Yes...temporarily. But now, unfortunately, the benefit seems to have worn off. The trouble is, the brain is rather sneaky and it seems to know when I am using an electronic substitute. My SpeechEasy tends to sit in its box most of the time. A bit disappointing, given that I have seen claims of an 80% success rate.

The most long-lasting controlling technique I have used is actually based around costal breathing - although I am not very comfortable using it...the reasons for which I am currently analysing, in fact. Costal breathing basically means taking a large intake of breath by flexing one's diaphragm and intercostals muscles (imagine the type of breath you take when you yawn) and projecting one's voice in a totally focussed manner at a slower, more controlled rate. Singers and stage actors practise costal breathing all the time. In fact, the rapid squats which Logue made Bertie perform were based around a similar principle - forcing Bertie to project his voice on a strong out-breath.

But since we have only fairly recently established that the cause of stammering is due to a neural malfunction, perhaps investing so much hope into electronic devices or, indeed, any other therapy, is rather dangerous. The stammerer's premotor cortex (the part of the brain responsible for the planning process in speech) doesn't work properly - we know that much. Bring on the neurosurgeon...

So I must conclude that these devices alone are not sufficient to get stammerers out of their stammering hole - just as Logue only helped and did not cure Bertie with his techniques. The truth is there is no cure, despite claims you may have seen on some websites and or heard on recent radio interviews. All stammerers can really hope for is to be helped through the daily trial of speaking by using a combination of techniques, therapies and willpower. You can help by being patient, not looking away, not looking like you're in a hurry and not trying to guess the rest of the sentence. You'd be surprised just how often you're wrong!

Ashley Morrison is a freelance blogger, copywriter and editor.
You can read an extended version of Ashley's blog here.


  • Comment number 1.

    I started stammering at about 5 years old. Now at 60 it is there like a soft accent, seldom more. If the reason for stammering is malshapped brain cells, so the signals in the brain to speak do not get through, then it is likely that as one ages, new pathways will be found and the stammer to a great extent fades away.

    My theraphy in my 30's was a slowed speech technique, which turns the blockage into a smooth sound that allows speech to continue. Learning this technique does, I assume, change the neural pathways in the brain.

    As a child who stammered life was not good; in adult life I have been a Methodist Local preacher, and represented a government department successfully many times at Land Registry Tribunials.

    Stammering and the effect that the reactions of other people have on the stammering, can be very damaging. Certainly to the child but not only at that age. If the film brings about more public awareness of those who stammer then it might be a good thing. I however have no wish to see it myself.

  • Comment number 2.

    I am all for more publicity as to how stammering affects the stammerers life. I developed a clutter stammer four years ago after taking medication for depression. Having never stammered before in my life I was baffled at being treated like a person with learning difficulties when I couldn't speak on cue with Joe Public in shops, restaurants, or generally in daily life.

    I learnt fairly quickly that speech therapy is underfunded and difficult to obtain unless you go privately. I had little success with improving my speech with a private speech therapist and the technique I was taught was difficult to employ on a daily basis as it decreased my rate of speech so drastically. I have just always taken the approach of talking through my stammer. I live in hope that it will eventually disappear as quickly as it arrived and hold onto the fact that my speech is slowly improving of its own accord. I would never wish a stammer on anyone, it is a very isolating disability and seems to be little tolerated in our fast paced society.

  • Comment number 3.

    Hi Louise, I am sorry for what you now have to endure. You are so right that stammereing is an isolating experience. My childhood was terrible due to this, my parents were told I was a homosexual which affected their relationship towards me. (c1964). I am not at all homophobic but I am as red blooded as any man can be! The curse of a stammer is to feel branded as one: inferior, useless, pointless etc. The way out is in refusing to accept these curses. Mentally throttle the self images imposed on you and find yourself. Then you start stop thinking of yourself as a stammerer and that is part of winning the battle. Best wishes.

  • Comment number 4.

    Dear all

    Many thanks for the comments. I am always interested - and moved - to hear how other people have been affected by their stammers.

    Barry, you are right - there is indeed a lot to be said for positive thinking and maintaining a sense of self-belief that one is as worthy (for want of a better word) as anybody else. It is very easy to feel downtrodden and to suffer from feelings of low self-esteem. However, conversely, I also feel that, for me, it is equally important to accept my stammer and the label of "stammerer", rather than to deny it.

    This school of thought suggests that by denying it, one is potentially accepting that there is some shame attached to it. It is a disability (or at least disabling) and whilst it may be more embarrassing than other disabilities, I now feel no shame in stammering. Don't misunderstand me: I am not suggesting for an instant that you are wrong to stop thinking of yourself as a stammerer. If that works for you, fantastic. But for me, accepting myself has been quite a long battle. I hope that, with time, this attitude will afford me some relief from the uphill struggle which I often have to endure.

    Best wishes to all,

  • Comment number 5.

    Dear Sir

    You spoke on BBC4 last Friday morning on You and Yours concerning the problems of stammering. I was very interested as I had a very bad stammer but was fortunate enough to have been put in touch with a Mr Bell in kirkcaldy about 15 years ago. Since then I have been much more confident and the telephone is no longer an instrument of torture.
    I still have to do voice exercises (which I'm afraid I do not do so often now) but if you would like to get in touch with me I would be more than happy to let you have them and I could explain the technique as we were taught.
    Yours faithfully
    Rosemary Cawley (Mrs)

  • Comment number 6.

    Hi Ashley and all you other sufferers. There is help out there moderately similar to the technique used in the film. It's called the Alexander Technique and it teaches you to be more in control of your voluntary muscles (including the jaw and neck). All voluntary muscles are controlled by our minds, in fact by our everyday, mostly subconscious thinking. By changing this thinking we can change how we move, and that includes stammering and stuttering. Mr Logue delved into and changed Bertie's thinking and got him to relax his muscles. An AT teacher may have different methods but possibly even better results! No need for exercises or 'management' but real change for the better.


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