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A Vocal Critic, a Voice of Change : Advocacy: Ira Zimmerman has taken on MGM, Howard Stern and Nike--and now he's out to educate the public about stuttering.

March 14, 1995|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 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 reporter.

As advocacy committee chairman for the nonprofit National Stuttering Project--an information and support group--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.

"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.

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. Cal State Fullerton has announced the creation of the Center for Children Who Stutter.

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 in May under the clinical direction of Glyndon Riley, the university's professor emeritus of communication disorders.

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'd like to see youngsters not have to live with a lifelong stuttering problem," Zimmerman said. "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 mission. 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 letter of apology from "Wanda" star Kline and another photo that chronicles the "informational demonstration" Zimmerman led outside Warner Bros.' Burbank studio in 1991 after Warner denied the National Stuttering Project's request to allow Porky Pig to be used in a public service announcement. Zimmerman was interviewed on "Entertainment Tonight" for that one, and Warner last year underwrote the cost of a workshop for school clinicians who treat children who stutter.

Much of Zimmerman's work is done on the telephone, one of the most feared instruments for people who stutter because the person on the other end may hang up before the stutterer can get words out.

As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, Zimmerman stumbled over 80% of his speech, his face twisting and contorting as he struggled to speak. "It really was quite a show to see."

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