I have always envied people who can simply talk without it being a mental workout. As an advocate for evidence-based, environmental decision-making I often get asked to appear on television or the radio to speak on scientific topics of interest. Each time I do, I marvel at how easily professional communicators speak. I have never known that skill/gift as I lived my entire life with a speech impediment. I am a stutterer.
Thankfully (as I will discuss in this post), intense speech therapy as a child makes my stutter almost invisible most of the time. It only asserts itself when I am caught unawares, am under stress, or have had a bit too much to drink.
As a very young child, I was taught a series of tools to adapt. The tools include being careful with my word choice, avoiding words with multiple consonants too close together, singing words, and sticking to rehearsed scripts.
Practice and repetition also really help. I will typically practice in my head what I am going to say before I say anything. Going over how I will get from the start to the end of a thought before saying it out loud allows me to avoid the traps. The only problem with this approach is with important topics I can try so many variations in my head that I can sometime think I have said something that I have not. My wife laughs that I have most of our important conversations in my head, and forget to share them with my family.
As a child, besides the stutter, I could not make a number of sounds. The worst being the letter R, which I pronounced as a W except in certain sequences. The most humorous (to the older kids at school) was that I pronounced the letters “TR” as an “F”. This lead to a famous joke of telling Blair to say “fire truck” to an adult to see their response.
You may ask why I am writing this blog post and the answer is: because I want to take advantage of current affairs to push for more early-childhood services for kids with speech impediments. Having read the brave discussion of the topic by Joe Biden in The Atlantic (What Joe Biden Can’t Bring Himself to Say) and seeing the Democratic Party highlighting Joe Biden and Brayden Harrington’s speech issues during their convention; I realize that it is time that people with speech impediments forced themselves back into the conversation.
We must speak out about funding for early intervention and restoring/adding funding for speech therapy in our schools. We need to highlight the importance of respecting individuals with speech impediments in order to allow them the time they may need to let themselves be heard.
I grew up in what I now understand was the golden age of speech therapy in schools. I was identified in Grade 1 as needing help and for the next couple years got regular and intensive help from a school-supplied speech therapist until I could roll my R’s and completely assimilate the tools necessary to hide my other speech challenges. I can’t count the number of times I was required to say “Ricochet-rabbit runs rapidly down the road” but every time I got it perfect I got a penny.
Even with all the tools I learned, anyone listening to me will get the impression that something is not quite right. I speak in a halting pace and will stop frequently as I struggle to get words out. This is not because I don’t know what I am trying to say, but because I cannot get the words out. That delay is me trying to find a different way to get ideas out of my head without access to the words I need, but can’t say.
When people say “you should think about what you are going to say before you say it“; It really frustrates me. In order to speak semi-fluently I literally have to think of every word I want to utter before I say it out loud. For me a casual discussion involves a constant effort of thinking about every word before it comes out of my mouth. I simply don’t have the ability to speak quickly and easily like the radio hosts I envy.
Interestingly, one of the parent’s on my daughter’s soccer team is a speech‐language pathologist (SLP). During my first discussion with her at the soccer field she immediately recognized how I was using all the tools she taught in her practice to speak as fluently as I possibly can. As someone who only treats children, she noted how satisfying it was to see that the lessons she teaches being implemented by an adult.
As someone with a speech impediment, I have often felt that my voice was not heard in conversations because I don’t get to the point fast enough. I know my lack of fluency can be tough on people I’m talking to but that doesn’t make my input valueless. My wife and kids are quite used to it and will fill in the gaps at home but sometimes all I need is for a bit a patience in an impatient world.
Earlier in my career, I had a supervisor who simply did not understand the concept of a speech impediment being a real thing. Even after my condition was explained to him, he still reprimanded me for coming to meetings “unprepared” if I spoke in a slow-halting pace, or stopped in mid-sentence before finishing a sentence. This supervisor included comments to this effect in my performance reviews and while I am gladly rid of this man from my life, I can’t help but wonder if his comments delayed my professional development or set back my career.
You might see a trend in this post. It is the importance of intensive therapy as early as is practicable and with giving those with a speech impediment the time they need to express themselves. Unfortunately, our school system no longer places the emphasis it once did on this topic. The hours of intensive one-to-one therapy I received as a child would never be available today. Many kids age-out before they can jump through all the hoops necessary to even qualify for the therapy they need to become fluent. As Speech and Hearing BC puts it:
Speech and language skills influence the trajectory of a child for a lifetime. These skills also link to cognitive development, social skills, and success in academic learning. At least one in ten preschoolers need to see a speech‐language pathologist (SLP) for support in developing age‐appropriate communication skills. It is not unusual for children to be left waiting for months or years to see a publicly funded SLP in BC, due to individual SLP caseloads of over 80 children. Some children will not have access to a SLP before kindergarten due to wait lists
The recommended caseload for one full time equivalent (FTE) SLP is 25‐40 children. Assuming the maximum caseload of 40 children and a prevalence rate of 10% of preschoolers requiring SLP services, BC would require 552 full‐time SLPs to address the estimated need, significantly more than the current 165.
More problematically, outside of the school environment BC’s basic Medical Services Plan does not cover the cost of private speech, language, or swallowing services. Talk about creating an uneven playing field. Making less well-off families choose between speech therapy and paying for other family needs is simply not fair.
Kids with speech issues who are not treated early will lose out for the rest of their lives and if they can’t get the services early in their lives (when it is covered by the school system) they may never be able to afford the treatment they require to develop the skills they will need to succeed over their lifetimes.
From a public purse perspective, getting these kids intervention when they are young will pay dividends over that child’s lifetime. Reducing truancy, better performance and fewer disciplinary problems through their scholastic careers are all observed outcomes of early intervention. I won’t go into what a difference it will make to their quality-of-life both through their school years and in their lives after school. To be clear here, I am not asking our government to break the bank, but directed funding to increase our per capita number of SLPs to a national average would be a great start. Funding speech therapy for young people through medicare would be another great change to make up for all those who got missed by the school system would be great as well.
I can’t say it enough, we need to increase funding for early and intensive intervention for speech impediments in our schools. We need to highlight the importance of giving kids the tools the need and respecting individuals with speech impediments in order to allow them the time they may need, to let themselves be heard.
A lot of people I have known a long time have commented that they never realized I had this challenge….and that is the ultimate point of this post…if you give a child early intervention for as little as few hours a week for a couple years you can get a child who can pass as normal which means they don’t get picked on and they get a chance to thrive.