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Stuttering is more than ‘The King’s Speech’

Carol Seery (left) mentors graduate student Kathryn Perkins, who recently presented her proposal for a research project that would examine how to more effectively alter the way people who stutter are perceived.
Carol Seery (left) mentors graduate student Kathryn Perkins, who recently presented her proposal for a research project that would examine how to more effectively alter the way people who stutter are perceived.

The movie “The King’s Speech” has stirred tremendous interest in stuttering. Already the winner of seven awards from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, and the Screen Actors Guild award for outstanding performance by a cast in a motion picture, the film will again be spotlighted at the 83rd Academy Awards show on Feb. 27, with 12 Oscar nominations.

The film tells the story of King George VI and his efforts to deal with his stuttering. His live broadcasts kept the spirits of the British people alive during the dark days of World War II. The film also has created awareness of other famous people who stutter, including Vice President Joe Biden, James Earl Jones, Nicole Kidman, Bruce Willis, B.B. King, Samuel L. Jackson and Jack Welch.

But for University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Associate Professor Carol Hubbard Seery, it was a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who “made the topic so interesting that I was drawn to it.”

Mystifying disorder requires multidimensional approach

Stuttering is probably the most misunderstood of all communication disorders. It is mystifying because of its fluctuating occurrence. At one moment the speaker says “apple” easily and at the next moment cannot, no matter how hard he or she tries. Some people have mild episodes of being blocked, while others struggle with severe speech disruptions.

“Stuttering appears to involve almost all aspects of what we do when we try to communicate,” says Seery, who is with the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders in the College of Health Sciences. “Studying stuttering requires a multidimensional approach, since it appears to be impacted by a multitude of factors – a person’s social interactions, psychological processes and physical capacity.”  

Seery felt that “The King’s Speech” oversimplified some of the issues involved in stuttering. She recently attended the film with several members of a stuttering support group, the local chapter of the National Stuttering Association (NSA).

The NSA members include people from many different career paths, including an accountant and a biologist. “Everyone liked how the film showed that a person who stutters also can have some really strong competencies,” said Seery. “But we also thought that someone could leave the theater believing that the primary reasons for stuttering are psychological. For example, there is the suggestion that some kind of traumatic event in the king’s childhood coincided with his starting to stutter.

“But research suggests that the reasons and risk factors are complex,” she continues. “It would have been more balanced if the movie also had depicted people who stuttered that had wonderful parents.” Seery adds that an underlying genetic factor is found in a high percentage of cases.

‘Many oars in the water’

Seery was instrumental in a multisite, multiyear research collaboration among several Midwestern universities, evaluating young children as soon as possible after stuttering was first noticed. Comprehensive reassessments continued across several years. The National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders awarded an unprecedented $4 million for the study. Data drawn from the project are now being used to advance understanding of stuttering and guide clinical decisions.

Seery has many “oars in the water” regarding stuttering. At the UWM College of Health Sciences, she conducts research, teaches undergraduate and graduate courses, mentors several research students and serves as graduate program coordinator for the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. For several years, she also supervised the graduate students in the program, who provide services at the UWM Speech Clinic for people who stutter or have other communicative challenges.

“Too often, clinical practice and research are interpreted as mutually exclusive. Throughout Dr. Seery’s work, I see a remarkable combination yielding important contributions to both disciplines,” explains colleague David Shapiro, the Robert Lee Madison Distinguished Professor at Western Carolina University’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. “As a clinician and as a researcher, I am grateful and I personally appreciate her focused, balanced and applied approach. Indeed, Dr. Seery’s work has made a significant impact, both in terms of its content and clarity, on our understanding of communication and its disorders.”

Seery sees advocacy and research partnered in the exploration of how listeners respond to a person who stutters. For example, she is collaborating with James Bashford, a researcher in UWM’s Department of Psychology, to examine whether a momentary pause before a stuttered word alters a listener’s perception of how long the stuttering moment is. She explained: “The preceding pause may affect the listener’s sense of how long the elongated sound seems to be.”

In another study, a graduate student wants to test how to more effectively alter the way stutterers are perceived. “Scholarly literature shows that people who stutter are judged with more negative characteristics – such being extremely shy, anxious, or slower intellectually. We need to explore how to educate people that those who stutter are competent individuals who should be given the opportunity to contribute,” says Seery.

The research aim is to find out whether video clips impact viewer attitudes toward people who stutter. Will views be changed by a video of people who stutter talking about their personal experiences, or by a video of a speaker giving information about stuttering?

Seery’s dedication to people who stutter is apparent in her interactions with a children’s support group. At monthly meetings, the group gives children who stutter a safe environment to talk and play with each other, and offers parents the opportunity to meet separately with Seery.

Although she credits previous students from UWM and Marquette with providing the impetus to launch the NSA-Kids group, Seery’s sensitivity and sense of humor guide the sessions.

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