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BRAVE TALK : Tired of Slurs, Stutterers Are Beginning to Speak Out--Difficult as It Is for Them

April 28, 1989|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

For a group of men and women who have spent most of their lives dreading--and even avoiding--such simple tasks as talking on the telephone or placing a fast-food order, they were an unlikely band of protesters.

But the 10 members of the Orange County chapter of the National Stuttering Project who protested the movie "A Fish Called Wanda" outside MGM the day before the recent Oscar ceremonies were prepared to have microphones thrust in their faces and field reporters' questions.

It wasn't easy stepping out of their own "comfort zones," protest organizer Ira Zimmerman of San Juan Capistrano said afterward, "but we felt the message was so important that we had to risk it."

Their message was eloquently simple: The treatment of a character who stutters in "A Fish Called Wanda" was "cruel and demeaning" and an insult to all people who stutter.

It is a message that the 4,000-member, nonprofit National Stuttering Project has been putting out since the hit comedy was released last summer. But in March, as the Academy Award-nominated film was rising to the top of the video rental charts and reaching an even larger audience, it was a message that the Orange County NSP contingent believed needed to be heard again.

This time loud and clear.

"This really took an awful lot of courage from all of us who were out on the picket line," said Zimmerman, 48, who has been stuttering since he was 4. "It was the last resort and, indeed, we took many hours agonizing over whether we should go through with this. The biggest fear we had was that we'd end up looking like fools because of the way we speak or the way the media would handle it."

MGM officials refused to comment on the protest and ignored the group's demands, which included displaying a disclaimer on future showings of "A Fish Called Wanda" saying that audiences should not draw from the film any negative inferences about people who stutter.

But if they failed to make an impact on MGM, the Orange County NSP chapter succeeded in raising public and media awareness about a speech problem that affects an estimated 2.4 million Americans.

After winning an Oscar for his "Wanda" role, actor Kevin Kline was peppered with questions about the stuttering controversy. And the day after the Oscars, "Entertainment Tonight" called Zimmerman for an interview.

It took the Rockwell International engineer several days before making up his mind to brave the network TV show's cameras.

"NSP members from all over the United States have been calling me, with pride, I guess; we were acknowledged," Zimmerman said. "We're hoping the protest raised consciousness concerning the feelings of people who stutter, and we hope that when Hollywood looks again at doing another comedy which involves anybody who stutters, that they will not treat it in the same manner."

Protester Annie Bradberry of Corona, a longtime NSP member, said she was surprised at the number of positive phone calls she received from fellow stutterers.

"I feel that just 10 of us were able to speak out for over 2 million people," the 30-year-old Bradberry said. "I felt like we stepped out of our little nest. We always think of how we're going to change world opinion in the comfort of our small group and here we took it out into the public eye."

Providing a non-threatening and comfortable setting for people who stutter is at the heart of the monthly NSP chapter meetings. In Orange County, that means the North Tustin-area home of chapter president Dr. Richard Brauer.

The words did not come easily.

Pausing at times, her eyes fluttering and her breathing heavy as she struggled over troublesome words, Deanne Simmons of Huntington Beach was explaining why she joined the Orange County NSP chapter in 1983.

For years, she said, she avoided talking on the telephone, and in school she always refused to speak in front of the class. "It was something I just would not do," she said.

"In high school, usually my teachers went along with it," but in college she found less understanding. One teacher told Simmons that if she didn't do the required speaking assignment she would give her no higher than a C.

Simmons said she took the C.

"What's neat about the meetings is, before joining the NSP, I thought I was the only one with certain experiences," said Simmons, 39, a legal secretary. "And the more you talk to people who stutter, you find we have so many experiences in common."

Simmons and chapter member Claire Byrne of Fountain Valley had arrived at Brauer's home early for the recent Saturday evening meeting, which included a talk by George Shames of the University of Pittsburgh. The renowned speech pathologist, who created the Stutter-Free Speech Program, demonstrated his new invention, the Vocal Feedback Device, which helps stutterers gain control of their speech.

Brauer, himself a stutterer, said he has watched both Simmons and Byrne "grow" over the years.

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