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'The King's Speech' brings stutterers out of the shadows and into therapy

The popularity of the Oscar-nominated movie has resulted in a flood of new inquiries for treatment of speech disorders, specialists say.

February 25, 2011|By Stephen Ceasar, Los Angeles Times
  • Britain's King George VI (Colin Firth), left, seeks help from a therapist (Geoffrey Rush) to treat his stutter.
Britain's King George VI (Colin Firth), left, seeks help from a therapist… (Laurie Sparham, Weinstein…)

Credit the "The King's Speech" for 12 Oscar nominations, $236 million in worldwide box office — and a lot more business for speech therapists.

Across the nation, clinics specializing in speech disorders and stutterers themselves say the film about British King George VI's battle to overcome a lifelong stammer has inspired many others, often shy and reluctant to seek assistance, to reach out for professional help.

At the Stuttering Foundation of America, a nonprofit organization that provides information on stuttering and referrals to therapists nationwide, donations have shot up 20% since the movie opened, officials said.

The organization says its website traffic has jumped by more than 2 million hits a month since the movie premiered in December, and it was forced to add extra phone lines to keep up with the rise in calls.

"People call in and say they saw the movie and finally decided to get help," said Jane Fraser, president of the foundation, based in Memphis.

In Southern California, Siglia Diniz, 47, of San Diego, recalled how the movie led her to seek help after years of hesitation, doubt and flat-out fear. Diniz said she began stuttering about five years ago and had bristled at the idea of therapy. "I felt ashamed," she said. "I thought that maybe I could control it myself."

That is, until she saw the movie and felt an instant connection with the king's plight. "I could feel his pain, his agony," Diniz said. "Even I was trying to put words in his mouth."

She immediately went home and searched online for help. Soon she began an intensive therapy program at the Power Stuttering Center in Newport Beach.

For a reluctant stutterer like Diniz, realizing that therapy actually works can instill the confidence to give it a shot, said Mark Power, a speech pathologist who owns the center. "They see that on the screen and it gives them some hope that there are ways to reduce or limit their stuttering," he said.

Advocates for stutterers laud the film for debunking myths and exposing truths about the often misunderstood disorder.

The movie, directed by Tom Hooper, recounts how George VI, as he rose to the throne and Britain embarked on World War II, gathered the courage to undergo speech therapy and learn to speak with enough clarity and conviction to help calm an anxious nation.

Stuttering is a speech disorder in which people voice sounds or words repeatedly, often haltingly or with long pauses. It affects an estimated 3 million people in the United States and typically begins in early childhood. Many cases are short-term and resolve themselves within a few years. Others are more long-lasting.

The precise cause of the disorder is unknown, though research has shown a strong genetic connection as well as environmental and physiological factors, said Kristin Chmela, a stuttering specialist who practices near Chicago.

Treatments vary, but most focus on training an effective control of the vocal and speech muscles, as well as overcoming fear and enhancing self-confidence in the way sufferers talk.

In Newport Beach on Wednesday, therapist Power was treating a client with a device known as a delayed auditory feedback machine. It is a sound system used to help stutterers overcome an urge to speak too quickly and focus on talking more slowly and smoothly and in continuous phrases.

Using headsets, stutterers speak into microphones and hear their own voices in the earphones. If they speak too quickly, they hear an echo, controlled by the therapist, signaling that they're going too fast.

As they slow down their speech, the echo — and voice — are heard as one sound and the stutter vanishes for a time. The technique helps train the person to master phrasing and pace, a skill that can be used later to control stuttering outside of therapy.

On Wednesday, Power and his client, Jeff Holzhauer, 46, repeated the process at faster speeds, soon removing the headsets and having a conversation that, apart from a few instances, was stutter-free. "Therapy replaces the stutter with a new way of talking," Power said.

Holzhauer, an information technology manager from Cypress, was dubious because therapy did not work as a child, he said. "I assumed I was not going to be helped."

He said "extreme fear" partly led him to take a job in information technology because he could work mostly with computers and avoid much conversation. But when a promotion called for him to speak more frequently with co-workers he decided to get help.

Power said Holzhauer was typical of many of the professionals he sees, and he hoped the film would cause more people to seek help.

Jennifer Douglas, a Hollywood speech pathologist who has been practicing for 15 years, said she had seen her business pick up in recent weeks.

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