After his employer requested that he seek work elsewhere because of his 'communication problem', Peter O'Sullivan decided to do something positive and attended a four week intensive block modification course at the City Lit in London. This helped him through a difficult time and he has now successfully found a new job.
1994 was a difficult year in many ways. My employer had first of all taken away my staff management responsibilities, and then requested that I seek employment elsewhere, because "my communication was not compatible with the direction of the company". For the first time in my life my stammer had become a disability. I decided to look for a way to make my stammer more acceptable to myself and others.
Initially I tried a speech therapist, attending a one hour session once a month. This failed to make any noticeable improvement, but frankly, I did not expect a habit which was 38 years old to be resolved without some serious effort. I also joined the British Stammering Association and quickly got up to speed on the latest moves within the field of speech therapy. I was disappointed, but not too surprised, to find that there had been no earth-shattering changes to the science since my last attempt to resolve the problem, some 14 years ago. However my determination to do something meant action. My speech therapist suggested that I go for broke and attend a four-week intensive course at the City Lit (there are other, shorter courses, see footnote - Webmaster).
For the first time in my life my stammer had become a disability
My first reaction was to feel very negative about the idea. Telling people at work I was going on such a course meant admitting I had a problem (I didn't, did I?). Also, what if I went on the course and made no improvement? How would I feel and look when I went back to work? Could I bear the thought of being analysed and modified? It was OK once a month, but every day for four weeks? My concerns grew worse when I found out more about the intensive course. There is a large emphasis on desensitisation. Well, I for one do not need to be desensitised, (and anyone who says I do needs to watch out!). I was convinced all I needed was a course of speech modification. I bought the book "Self-Therapy for Stammerers" and tried that for a while, but I felt I was getting nowhere and eventually decided to take the plunge.I would apply for the Intensive, sceptic or not. Several weeks later I was told I had a place on the course, and from then on,decided to give it my best shot.
The course was to last for four weeks with nine students at the City lit near Holborn in London. There were to be three experienced therapists leading the course using an approach based on the "Stammer more Fluently" concepts developed separately by Joseph Sheehan and Charles Van Riper.
This brought out each of our stammers in its full gory glory.
As with all such situations, the first day started rather nervously. I have always (like many other stammerers) found introductions difficult. We were also invited during the first morning to be videoed individually. This brought out each of our stammers in its full gory glory. None of us knew what we were to expect throughout the rest of the course, but this was clearly explained, and by the end of the first day we were all raring to go and ready to face the hard work to come. The rest of the first week, and for part of the second week, we worked on identification together with desensitisation. Now I thought beforehand that I was well tuned into my stammer, but as the time went by I realised that there were features of my stammer unknown to me. The benefit of group therapy became apparent during this period. Without feedback it would have been impossible to build up a full picture of my stammer, and by using the group the feedback was described in common terms.
At first we concentrated on purely visible dimensions to our stammer such as how the stammer sounds and is made up, and the physical (but non-vocal) movements surrounding the stammer. We then went on to examine some of the covert features we all have to varying levels, such as not speaking up, replacing words, and avoiding situations. It became clear that many of the characteristics of a stammer are avoidance techniques which we apply in a vain attempt not to stammer. If we were to not block on a word, or not move our eyes, we would stammer more. Our avoidances provide strategies to cope.
After this long period of analysis, we all felt well tuned in to our individual strategies.
...people struggled to speak up when they had something to say, to cut out the "errs" and "aahs", to make a sound instead of blocking, and to cut out all word switching
Then came the crunch. We were invited to drop the avoidances. This, of course, proved quite painful. For the whole of the second week people struggled to speak up when they had something to say, to cut out the "errs" and "aahs", to make a sound instead of blocking, and to cut out all word switching. In some cases (mine in particular) this meant reducing our stammer to its basic sound. We were, however, at last stammering on the right sound. There were obviously some very long stammers, and many foo..foo..foo..foo..foo..foots.
To have the confidence to drop the avoidance strategies required desensitisation. There was therefore a lot of work during the first two week to reduce people's sensitivity towards their stammer. As part of this process we had several discussions about attitudes towards stammering, looking both at our own personal attitudes and what we felt were the perceptions of the general public towards stammering and stammerers. Throughout we were encouraged by the therapists and the group not to worry when we were stammering. The important thing was to stammer openly and to drop any avoidances. Improvement could only take place if we revealed the true stammer. We would then be able to apply techniques to the true and open stammer, rather than modify an avoidance technique.
After the first six days of struggling with our stammers and at last stammering openly, we were at last able to work on speech techniques. This began with voluntary stammering, which, for the uninitiated, involves adding stammers to words on which we would not normally stammer. This may sound masochistic but in fact was the opposite. It gave us a feeling of control over our speech, albeit on easy words. This feeling of control seemed to make troublesome words less difficult. Voluntary stammering also continued the theme of desensitisation. If we were confident enough to voluntary stammer in front of people, it was in its own way and act of admission of a stammer, rather than an attempt to hide (or avoid) what is already obvious,
As well as practising voluntary stammering within the group we were also invited to try it outside on the general public. Most people felt apprehensive about this, particularly when we learned we were being asked to conduct a public survey about attitudes towards stammering. Everyone, however, gave it a go, and all felt satisfied with their performance and confidence in carrying out such a 'sensitive' task.
At the end of the second week, the pay-off began. We were now all feeling more confident about our stammers, were stammering on the true sounds without avoiding, and were able to begin some realistic speech modification techniques. This began with a method known as Post-block Modification, or Cancellation. The process entailed completing a stammer, and then pausing and repeating the word straight after, using soft contacts and elongating the sounds. Remarkably we could normally repeat the word without stammering. Our speech was slowed down, and feared words became possible.
The process entailed completing a stammer, and then pausing and repeating the word straight after, using soft contacts and elongating the sounds. Remarkably we could normally repeat the word without stammering.
When we were comfortable with that technique, we then moved on to Mid-block Correction. This process is similar to Cancellation, but instead of completing the stammer, we were taught to take control of the stammer mid-way through, and use the same techniques of slowing the stammer down and softening the contacts to work through the sounds. As with voluntary stammering,we were given plenty of opportunities to practice the techniques of Cancellation and Mid-block Correction both inside and outside of the City Lit.
The third week ended with us each being videoed so that we could compare progress against the first day.
Following the third week, there was a break of a month before we returned. This enabled each of us to return to 'normal' life and use the techniques we had been taught together with our new attitudes towards stammering.
The final week introduced one further technique. This was Pre-block Modification. This is similar to Mid-block Modification except we start to use the soft contact, pausing, and elongation before we stammer, i.e. whenever we anticipate a stammer. This was a much more open week, with the group having a fair amount of freedom to dictate the agenda. We decided to use the time to further examine our feelings towards stammering, share experiences, and carry out some practical work on telephones.
At the end of the course we felt there was little more we could do in the classroom. It was now time to go out and DO IT.
So that, in a nutshell, was an Intensive Course at the City Lit. But it was, of course, much more than that. It provided an opportunity to make new friends. It gave a platform for talking about speech issues which had been simmering beneath the surface for years. It provided a means to relate to people with similar problems and to share experiences. It gave hope to myself and others saddled with the burden of a stammer.
The burning question, of course, is how effective was it. Well that depends on what it was each person had as their objectives before and during the course (most people modified their objectives during the course as they came to realise they could address more then just fluency levels). No one on the course had the unreal objective of a total "cure", but all hoped for and expected some improvement in fluency levels. Without doubt at the end of the course this had been achieved to varying levels. Other objectives were a desire to improve confidence and assertiveness. This was certainly achieved. No one prior to the course would have dreamt of going out into the public and conducting a survey about stammering.
It had provided him with a social confidence that he had not experienced since childhood. He said he felt that his stammer is fast becoming irrelevant to his life.
To gauge the general consensus of the people who had attended, I decided, several weeks later, to write to each of the people who had attended in order to get their views 'in hindsight'. All said the course was "fun". No one said it was anything other than beneficial. Others went further and said it was inspirational or had changed their lives. One the students, for example, said the course had totally changed his attitude to stammering. It had provided him with a social confidence that he had not experienced since childhood. He said he felt that his stammer is fast becoming irrelevant to his life.
Others saw the benefits of the course over a longer term. One of the students said that although her feelings towards her stammer had now changed, she feels she is only at the beginning. The course had given her the tools to move forward. Another student made a similar point describing the course as a unique experience involving a great deal of hard work, albeit in a cozy environment, but stressed that the group was not a model for the real world. A lot of hard follow-up work was now needed using the techniques and continuing the desensitisation in order to bring the feelings and techniques out of the City Lit and into reality.
Other people on the course had not worked in group therapy before. One of the students said she was initially sceptical about how a group of stammerers could help her problem and was not interested in joining a 'club' for stammerers. Her stammer, she felt, was her own personal problem. However at the end of the course she had changed her tune and was very pleasantly surprised at how well the group worked. She had now joined the British Stammering Association. Both her perception of her stammer and her acceptance of the stammer had changed.
What about my feelings? Well, at the end of the course I had attained a dramatic improvement in my level of fluency. Since then this has slipped back at varying degrees at various times. However I feel I have the potential to pull back the fluency I have lost. As regards my attitudes towards my stammer, I have become much more open that before. In going for job interviews I normally open by saying that I have a stammer and should the interviewer wish to discuss it, then that was OK with me. In doing this I had broken the ice and relieved some tension (and as a result I stammered less). I would never have done this before going on the City Lit course.
In going for job interviews I normally open by saying that I have a stammer and should the interviewer wish to discuss it, then that was OK with me.
The course, together with the follow up therapy offered by the City Lit, has helped me through a very difficult time. I have had reasonable success at interviews and not found them as daunting as I would have had I not been on the course. I have now successfully secured a new job.
Finally, I feel that another of the students on the course summed up both my feelings and the feelings of others who had attended when he said "I would recommend this course to anyone, especially those with an open mind and a desire to change, not just their speech, but also habits and attitudes built up over a lifetime. To make a success of the course you need the courage and strength to change".
Footnote: a range of courses for people who stammer are offered, including intensive daytime courses of varying lengths, evening classes and theme based workshops. Workshops and follow up evening courses may include assertiveness, voicework, telephone and workplace issues and stress management. Fees are in line with adult education classes and concessions are available for those on low incomes. For further information contact the City Lit Speech Therapy Department - see City Lit contact details and courses.
From the Summer 1995 issue of 'Speaking Out'