articleThis content is more than 5 years old.

Obituary: Vivian Sheehan 1917 - 2008

Frances Cook, Rachel Everard | 01.06.2008

Vivian Sheehan was a remarkable Speech and Language Pathologist who, in partnership with her husband Joseph, has left an outstanding legacy to the field of stuttering.

Born Vivian Mowat on Oct. 15, 1917, in Chicago, she earned a Bachelor's degree in English from Adrian College in Michigan in 1938 and a master's degree in Speech Pathology from the University of Michigan in the early 1940s.

During the late 1940s, the Sheehans adapted group psychotherapy techniques for working with stuttering. Their treatment was radically different from those therapies which focused on fluency alone and is described as approach-avoidance conflict therapy. The underlying philosophy was the reduction of 'avoidance' behaviour, balanced with an increase in openness about stuttering.

Throughout her clinical career, Vivian helped 1000s of clients to discover that by being more open about their stuttering in their everyday lives, they would learn to accept their stuttering, to understand it and to become more spontaneous communicators. The enduring message is that 'it is ok to stutter'.

Their well-known analogy of an iceberg of stuttering continues to help clients, new clinicians and experienced therapists to conceptualise stuttering as a highly complex disorder where a substantial proportion of the problem is covert or 'under the water level'.

Before she retired, I was fortunate enough to meet Vivian on a number of occasions at Special Interest Division 4 (Fluency Disorders) meetings and at ASHA Conventions in the States. Although initially in awe of her reputation and feeling rather anxious, she quickly put me at ease with her charm, enthusiasm and keen interest in what was happening in stammering research and therapy in the UK.

Vivian will be remembered for her lifelong commitment to both the art and science of stuttering.

Frances Cook MSc Reg MRCSLT (Hons),The Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children,

Plenty of words to say

Vivian Sheehan with Rachel EverardIt was with great sadness that I learnt of Vivian Sheehan's death. I was lucky enough to meet Vivian at the BSA Annual Conference in 2001 and found her approachable, enthusiastic and highly knowledgeable, continuing to facilitate therapy groups well into her 80s. Her keynote speech at that particular conference demonstrated her deep understanding and passion for stammering, spelling out the need for people who stammer to embrace their stammering rather than run away or hide from it.

One of the biggest influences on our overall approach to stammering at City Lit has been Joseph and Vivian Sheehan's work, and for this we are indebted to them. We frequently use the documentary made about Vivian's work 'No words to say' in our therapy with adults who stammer. Our students often comment on how Vivian's words and direct way of working help clarify their understanding of avoidance reduction therapy, encouraging them to tackle the most feared situations with courage and determination.

Rachel Everard, Speech and language therapist, City Lit,

Joseph Sheehan

Joseph, who had a stammer himself, died in 1983. He saw stammering as a result of conflicting drives to speak and to refrain from speaking. When the two drives were about equal, the person stammered. The drive to hold back was based on fear, most immediately fear of stammering. He advocated openness and acceptance of one's stammer to help dissolve the fear and shame etc hidden below the surface in the stammering iceberg.
Allan Tyrer


From the Summer 2008 issue of 'Speaking Out', page 6