One of the reasons I started blogging was to share information with other SLPs that I thought would be helpful and inspiring. This is definitely one of those posts! This amazing interview is with an inspiring man who I am proud to say is a friend. Derek has stuttered for as long as he can remember and when I asked him if he would be willing to share his story and insights, he graciously said yes! Before I go any further, you may want to grab a tissue or two. Derek talks about his childhood, school days, adult life, career and his experiences and insights about speech therapy. There are also links to youtube posts of his before and after videos from an intensive speech therapy program he attended. Wow is all I can say, make sure you watch them. Ok, got your tissues handy?
1. How long have you stuttered?
From what I’m told, the first signs of a stutter came around when I was 3-4. Personally, the earliest recollection I have of stuttering goes way back to kindergarten. I can pinpoint the exact moment too. How? My mom has old photo albums of my brother and I growing up and the photo happened to be at a presentation/skit we were performing for our parents. The picture is of myself and my friend, with me pointing to him. While the picture may look like I’m smiling, I distinctly remember telling my mom that “he is the funniest kid I know” … and I distinctly remember prolonging the ‘e’ in the word ‘he’. So while the picture looks like I’m smiling, teeth and all, the memory of my stutter definitely sticks out.
2. How would you classify your severity as a stutterer?
I think it has definitely changed over time. As a young kid, I was not as self-aware of it as I was later in life, so I would consider myself a mild stutterer in my early grade-school days. As I got older, as I entered my middle school years, I became more aware of who I was to others (as do 99% of kids that age). The usual pressures in school of trying to fit in and all started to add extra pressure on me. As any stutterer can tell you, added pressure is never a good thing. I think between my middle school and high school years I would have considered myself a moderate stutterer. In high school, I had an instance where I became so nervous to give a presentation in Spanish class, I hid in the bathroom the entire period (as if giving a presentation in another language wasn’t hard enough! Haha). I dealt with my stutter fine during those years, but I was definitely a moderate stutterer in those years.
By the way, I didn’t get in trouble for skipping class. Luckily, the principal was a family friend and after I told him the truth on why I skipped, he let me slide. Phew!
3. Have you ever been in speech therapy? If so how long?
I started in speech therapy at the age of 5. My parents have always been very supportive and pro-active in getting me the help I need for my fluency. I began getting help at St. Xavier University when I was 5. In grade school, middle school and high school, I saw the school speech pathologist weekly. In college (Northern Illinois University), I majored in Speech Pathology, so naturally the staff there wanted to provide therapy for me. It was kind of a cool thing. Students were using me as a client for their practicums and I was getting free help (as well as getting my own experience for my homework assignments! Best of both worlds!).
As for specialized therapy, I have gone to see many individual therapists for one-on-one sessions throughout my life. I remember going to Evanston, IL to see Dr. Hugo Gregory, as he was highly recommended as one of the best Fluency experts in the state. I don’t remember much from the session (I think I was 9 or 10 at the time). I traveled to the Hollins Communication Research Institute in Roanoke, Virginia this past summer in 2012 and the events that took place there changed my life. I’ll go into more detail below …
4. How did stuttering impact you as a child, in an out of school?
Simply put, I am who I am today because of my stutter. Stuttering had many positive impacts on my life and many negative impacts on my life growing up. Throughout my life, I’ve seen the best kinds of people and I’ve also seen the worst kinds of people. On one hand, people who I have come across have been and can be very understanding and open to the fact I have a stutter. When I was young, I was at the age where I did not pay much attention to my stutter. I’m sure I had disfluencies. But, honestly, I never paid attention to them. I had lots of great friends and was more concerned about whose house I was going to hang out at or what kind of trouble I could scheme up with my friends. My speech never entered my mind. As I got older, into the middle school and high school years, my story was similar. Most people I came across were understanding and did not care how I sounded, but rather what kind of person I was. I had a lot of friends, participated in countless sports and had a great time in school.
However, the world isn’t perfect. With every “ying”, there must be a “yang”. Growing up, there were kids who were not so understanding, kids who were ignorant, kids who got their jollies by making others feel miserable. I was an easy target. Sure, anyone or anything that is considered “different” is an easy target for ignorance. My stutter drew that kind of attention to some. I remember bullies on the bus making fun of my stutter. At the age of 6 and 7, it isn’t likely that you are going to stand up to a kid who is 11 or 12. So, I ignored it. And they would persist, grabbing my backpack as I would be walking off of the bus and not letting go until they forced a stutter out of me. It wasn’t difficult. A stutterer who is in a high-pressure situation and panicking for help surely does not have a good chance to be fluent. So, the bullies would usually win, get their laugh in and I would be free to go, only to experience the same ridicule day in and day out. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t devastate me. It did. But, I never got angry, I never retaliated. During my middle school and high school years, the kids were more understanding. In middle school, I wasn’t alone. Another student had a stutter, one more severe than my own. If anything, it was a blessing in disguise. He was one of the more popular kids in the school, and with him having a stutter, people were more understanding to his stutter. So, when others heard me stutter, it was nothing new. He was more outgoing than I was and got in his share of fights every year. I think his stutter turned him into a defensive person more than anything. His idea was that if his words couldnt strike fear into you, his fists would. I was never the most popular in school. I never hung out with this other kid, but we would give each other looks every now and then … looks of understanding and a mutual repsect. He never gave me a hard time … and I respected him for that. High school was a great time for me. I had a great group of friends I had grown up with, I played a couple sports and never really had a a major issue with my speech … except for the “Spanish Exodus” incident I mentioned above 🙂
5. What strategies have you learned and used to be fluent? Which were helpful which were not?
In therapy, the main technique that was used to help my fluency was to slow down my speech and connect syllables, concentrating on an easy onset and a connecting of syllables, usually in 3-4 word phrases. Breathing was also stressed, as getting a full breath was a key to the easy onset. This technique was taught to me in many different ways, but always had the same general idea. This was first introduced to me at age 6 when I started grade school and was taught to me through various methods up through my college years. Up until this summer, I figured this was the technique I would use to control my fluency for the rest of my life. Then, I went to the Hollins Communication Research Institute (HCRI) this past summer and my life was changed forever. Like above, I will get to my results at the HCRI below …
6. What presentation of these strategies worked best for you to understand how to use them?
When I was younger, I felt it was most effective if I could read the words from a card or a page. It helped me to actually see the word and the sound I needed to produce. Growing up and working on the easy onset and breathing techniques I was taught, it was a great help to see the words. I could mentally visualize the “phrases” I was going to concentrate on and the points in a word or sentence where I could break and take another breath for an easy onset. As I got older, I felt that working on conversational speech was more effective for me. During these speech therapy sessions, I would reduce my rate of speech drastically, focusing on phonemes and connecting syllables.
7. How has stuttering impacted your adult life?
Similar to life as a kid, there are people who are understanding of my stutter and there are people who are ignorant, usually because they don’t know why I am having difficulty and they just think I’m goofing around or acting weird. I said it earlier … stuttering has made me the person I am today. Currently, I am a middle school Special Education teacher. I could not think of a better job for myself. People ask me all of the time why I got into the field or “Did you always know you wanted to be a Special Education Teacher?”. I don’t know if teaching was my dream job growing up (My parents would tell you it was … but then again, they were both school teachers for 30+ years, haha), but I always knew I wanted to help. Help with what? I knew I wanted to help those who went through the things I did growing up … somehow. People tell me all the time that I have great patience with my kids, and great patience overall. I don’t find it to be too difficult. I get up every morning knowing I get to help those who already have things on their plate. Special Education students are no different than anyone else … they just need the extra help. Heck, I gladly consider myself a Special Education student growing up. I had a disability and I needed help. Simply put, I know how much help helps! In a way, I’ve been in my students’ shoes. I’m still there today. I always will be. I’m always going to have something that I will have to battle for the rest of my life. But, I’m damn proud of who it has made me. I could have easily become an angry person, lashing out against anyone who made fun of me. Have there been rough times? Absolutely. But I’m a stronger person for going through those tough times. I’m proud to say that I’ve only physically lashed out one time in my entire life over my stutter. To my defense, the person deserved it (and those who know the story would agree with me 100%, haha).
If I could go back and change anything in my life … I wouldn’t. Not one thing.
8. What advice would you give to SLPs new to working with clients who stutter.
Two words: Be positive. Every stutterer is different. Every stutterer has a story. But the one thing pretty much all of them have in common is they want one thing … hope. Give them that hope. There are going to be days that are wonderful, full of fluent speech and progress. There are going to be days of struggle. The one thing I can not thank my speech therapists enough for was their positive attitude. I had days where I wanted to work for hours on my speech. They kept me in control. I had bad days where I did not want to say a word. They kept me in control. As an SLP, you truly do not know the power you have. Treasure each moment at work. Every minute you spend with a client means the absolute world to them, whether they admit to it or not, because you have the same goal as they do … progress.
9. What do you feel has helped you the most to be fluent?
The second I finished reading that question, only one word came to mind … perseverance. I can get all the speech therapy in the world. I could talk to the leading experts on fluency. Nothing matters unless I continue to put in the work, no matter what happens in my life, good or bad. My life was forever changed one year ago, during the holidays in 2011 …
I had hit a low point. I hadn’t been in any kind of real therapy since I graduated from college in 2006. Sure, I had practiced my techniques, but nothing ever lasted more than 2 weeks or so. It was too sporadic. My parents had mentioned to me the Hollins Communication Research Institute (HCRI) in Roanoke, VA sometime in 2005. They had seen it on Oprah and heard all these amazing stories about it. At the time, I felt I was in control enough to handle myself just fine. My parents would mention the HCRI from time to time throughout the following years if I ever had a period of bad stuttering. I did a little research on the place in 2007 and it sounded like just another clinic that would use the same techniques I’ve had all of my life, just in some new form I had not heard of yet. It was highly recommended and had helped many well-known people. And the price? It was almost $4,000 for a two-week session! I continued to say “No thank you”. I felt I had enough control over my speech … until last Christmas. I had enough. I was struggling with my fluency in nearly every situation I would come across daily … teaching my students, talking on the phone, talking with my girlfriend, ordering food, talking to my dog’s vet … the stress built up inside of me and I had a breakdown. I remember sitting on my couch with my girlfriend, in tears, and admitting I needed serious help. I felt embarrassed of who I was. Embarrassed in front of my family, in front of my friends, in front of my girlfriend, in front of my students, everybody. I’m sure the perception of myself was worse than it really was and, sure, people were understanding and knew I stuttered, but I wanted better for myself. So, with the help of my parents (who I love more than anyone on this Earth, as they would give up everything they had if it meant helping my fluency), I signed up to attend the HCRI over the summer of 2012.
What happened there would change my life forever. Click on the link below to see for yourself …..
Click on the following link to see my official interviews at the HCRI before and after therapy:
10. Any words of wisdom?
I was stuck on this question for a while. Sure, I could say “Don’t give up” or “Work you butt off”. But very simply, I’m going to say … ANYTHING is possible, truly.