Stammering is a much misunderstood condition. Sufferers are at best pitied and, at worst, figures of fun and targets for playground bullies. A new video aims to change attitudes, writes Harvey McGavin.
Words don't come easy to 11-year-old James Bridle. Every utterance is an effort, each sentence an obstacle course of vowels and consonants set with traps to send him tumbling. But he's not unusual. Like thousands of other children, James has a stammer.
A school nurse first noticed a problem with his speech when he was seven. "Up to that point he was really fluent," remembers his father, Trevor. "But when his stammer really took hold, his reading age went down badly."
With help from his father, and sympathetic teachers, James is beginning to overcome his stammer. He has been interviewed on radio and television and taken part in sponsored "stammerthons". As his confidence has grown, his stammer has receded and is now no more than a slight hesitancy in his speech.
"It gets worse when people take the mickey; there's always the odd one that does it," says James, who has just started secondary school at Countesthorpe Community College in Leicestershire. "I like my new school. I get more time to speak, and if I start stammering they don't finish off the words for me. I can take my time."
But for every child like James who is coping with the condition, there are many more who suffer in silence, afraid of the embarrassment and ridicule. A new video and information pack, produced by the British Stammering Association, hopes to change all that.
The video, A Chance to Speak, is being piloted in 22 Leicester schools and will be available nationally in the new year. It aims to inform teachers of the warning signs and raise awareness of the condition. Compared with dyslexia, another common impediment to learning, stammering is much misunderstood and treatment under-resourced, according to Susan Page, vice chairman of the BSA.
The video drama tells the story of Matthew, a new pupil at secondary school, as he prepares to make an oral presentation to the class. A daunting prospect to most children, but the fear is magnified for Matthew. He struggles to get beyond the first sentence and is barracked by his classmates. After finding him being bullied in the playground, Matthew's teacher takes him to one side and offers to help. It's a happy ending, but not a typical one.
The BSA estimates that one in 80 children stammers, and four-fifths of them are boys. Nobody knows what causes a stammer. It can be related to dyslexia, and there is evidence that it is hereditary, but very often the cause is as much of a mystery as the cure.
"During your career, how many pupils will you meet that stammer - 10, 20, or as many as 50?" the video asks. "Chances are it will be more than you think. With many you won't realise there is a problem. Not because they don't stammer, but because they don't speak."
Marvin Shaire, a retail consultant from Bushey, Hertfordshire, and active member of the BSA, knows a girl who went to desperate lengths to cover up her verbal affliction. At school dinner times, rather than go to the counter to ask for a hot meal, she would serve herself from the salad bar. "She hated salads, but it was so much easier than having to ask for a hot meal," he says.
Marvin has the opposite problem with his seven-year-old son, Luke. "He's naturally gregarious - we can't shut him up!" Luke was a late talker and didn't start putting words together until he was 212. Even then it was apparent there was something wrong. "He would twist his head and shake his body," Marvin says. "We didn't know what was wrong with him; it was very worrying."
Luke's early schooling was a traumatic experience. "He once came back from school and said 'I speak funny, don't I?' and burst into tears. We said, 'You don't speak like other people. It's one of those things but it's not something to worry about. It's their problem not yours.' "Initially, when people hear Luke speak they think he is an idiot, but he is far from daft; he's quite bright. He goes to a private school now, where the classes are smaller, and in a demanding environment he is holding his own."
Family gatherings such as Christmas can make him excited and worsen the condition. But, as Marvin points out, "you can't cancel Christmas". Instead, the family has learned several simple techniques to ease Luke's problem. They try not to talk quickly or ask too many questions, and keep background noise such as television and radio to a minimum.
"Our whole lifestyle has had to slow down because of Luke," Marvin says. "But we aren't hanging on for a permanent cure; there's no pill and there's no potion. The important thing is that he's getting better."
Some stammerers have overcome their affliction by training in breathing techniques or more confrontational therapy. But speech therapist Renee Byrne says each case is different. "A lot depends on how much the child is bothered by it. It's like anything you have a hang-up about. Supposing I blushed a lot - it would get worse if I thought everyone was noticing.
"As children get older, they can start to use avoidance behaviour. If they feel they are going to show themselves up in class they will cover it up by having a coughing fit or dropping their books. The teacher in a busy class will not necessarily see that as avoidance behaviour, so it is often a hidden disorder."
By shutting up or covering up, stammerers can evade detection. Add to that the embarrassment of others when confronted with a stammerer and it's easy to see how stammering has become the condition that dare not, and sometimes cannot, speak its name. But it is only by talking about stammering, says Susan Page, that we can hope to raise awareness of this most frustrating condition.
"The worst thing you can do to a stammerer is rush them or finish their sentences for them," she says. And the best thing that can help James Bridle, Luke Shaire, and other children like them, to beat their inarticulacy is a little more understanding.
British Stammering Association: 0181 983 1003; Helpline 0181 981 8818
THE STARS WHO BEAT THE STAMMER
Sufferers can take heart from the stories of two childhood stammerers who became famous for their way with words. Nicholas Parsons, actor and game-show host, was once caned by a teacher at school who thought he was taking the mickey. "But I found my own way to handle it - I became the comic of the class."
Fortunately, his ambition to make it as an actor proved both the inspiration and remedy. "I knew if I was to be a successful actor I would have to control it, and I discovered that when I was facing an audience and I had learned my lines I didn't start stuttering. By proper voice production techniques and breathing, I could stop it happening. But I haven't conquered my stuttering; I have just learned to control it."
Writer Margaret Drabble began to stammer as a three-year-old. "Certain consonants would set it off - d's, b's, g's, m's and w's," she says. Her love of poetry proved a panacea. "I loved reading poetry aloud, and I had a good speech therapist who understood the kind of things I liked to do.
"I wasn't teased about it at school, but I was very self-conscious indeed. It only really solved itself when I went to university and became more outgoing. "
But she too admits that traces of her childhood affliction remain.
"I still have difficulty with certain words and I still get nervous about talking on the telephone."