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Stutterers' Crusader Wants the Last Word : Advocacy: O.C. man is out to educate the public about a problem that affects 5% of children.

October 23, 1994|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — It's the radio shock jock versus the stutterers' advocate.

Round One occurred in 1991 when controversial New York talk show host Howard Stern had advocate Ira Zimmerman on his show, via telephone from the latter's San Juan Capistrano home. The subject: Stern's persistent ridiculing of "Stuttering John" Melendez, the show's celebrity-interviewing field reporter.

As advocacy committee chairman for the nonprofit National Stuttering Project, a group that provides information and support to stutterers, Zimmerman sees no humor in making fun of someone's stutter.

"Howard's general attitude is he believes that stuttering is funny, and he says the proof of that is people have been laughing at Porky Pig for 50 years and it's not because he has a cute tail," Zimmerman said, then laughed. "I thought that was a funny line, actually.

"We went back and forth and he said, 'Well, what do you want me to do? Do you want me to fire Stuttering John Melendez?'

"I said: 'No. I just don't want you to laugh at the way that he stutters and to make a point of it every time.' "

Zimmerman lost that round: Stern still pokes fun at Melendez's stutter.

But Zimmerman continues to spar with Stern--and the radio personality's fans--via Prodigy's "Howard Stern Debate" electronic bulletin board where he was briefly suspended for badgering other members. Said Zimmerman with a chuckle: "I irritate him as much as I can on Prodigy."

And, most important, he's still carrying out his mission to educate the public about a speech problem that affects nearly 5% of children and almost 1% of adults.

"It was a dream that appeared at first to be impossible, but through the media I've been able to reach out to millions of people," said Zimmerman, 54, a laid-off aerospace engineer who had to first battle his own fears and insecurities about being a front man for people who stutter.

For someone who has stuttered since he was 4, the increasingly media-savvy Zimmerman has no trouble getting his message across.

He's led a protest against the film "A Fish Called Wanda," in which a sadistic character played by Kevin Kline mercilessly ridicules a stammering animal lover played by Michael Palin. He's taken Nike to task for treating Porky Pig's stuttering in what the National Stuttering Project considered a disrespectful way in a commercial. He even tried unsuccessfully to enlist Porky as an ally for a public service plea to "make friends, don't make fun of kids who stutter."

Now Zimmerman's role as an advocate is taking a new direction. On Tuesday, the president of Cal State Fullerton, Milton Gordon, will announce the creation of an on-campus Center for Children Who Stutter ((714) 449-5309).

Zimmerman, who has been named the center's president and chairman of the board, said the university is donating the office space and will help raise $50,000 to open the center. The facility is tentatively scheduled to open early next year under the clinical direction of Glyndon Riley, the university's professor emeritus of communication disorders.

"The aim of the center is really to provide prevention," Zimmerman said.

Why people stutter is not known, said Riley, who is conducting research funded by the National Institutes of Health on two approaches to the treatment of stuttering in children.

"Research points to multiple risk factors: There are physiological things going on," said Riley, who is also a speech pathology consultant for the UC Irvine Brain Imaging Center, which recently reported preliminary findings that show differences in several regions of the brain during stuttering.

Research, Riley said, "also strongly indicates that if we can get early treatment for stuttering, then we could prevent most stuttering from ever developing into its adult form."

Praising Zimmerman's efforts as an advocate, Riley credits him with spearheading the new center.

"I do advocacy for adults and realized children were getting a raw deal," Zimmerman said. "I'd like to see youngsters not have to live with a lifelong stuttering problem. Generally, stuttering sucks. It really impacts my career and it impacts my personal relations with other people.

"It's a wall between people, and if there's a way that kids can overcome this when they're young, I'd like to spend the rest of my life working in that area."

*

Zimmerman works out of a small office off the living room of his San Juan Capistrano condominium, not far from the old mission whose pealing noontime bells can be heard through the open window.

Call it Zimmerman Central.

The fax-equipped office is filled with boxes, files and assorted odds and ends. On the walls are souvenirs of Zimmerman's advocacy efforts. There's a framed photo of the 1989 "Wanda" protest outside the MGM offices in Culver City, which was sent around the world by the Associated Press.

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