Lauren Archer looks at our changing attitudes to stuttering and at the McGuire Programme which has helped reshape our viewsFor countless families huddled around their television sets each evening, the stammering conclusion of the Warner Brother’s classic Looney Tunes cartoon was a source of endless amusement. Porky Pig, the stuttering, bow tie and suit jacket-clad star of the animated series, suffered from a hugely hyperbolic speech impediment, with one study finding he would stumble over a disproportionately high 23 per cent of his words and display atypical and exaggerated speech patterns. Porky’s stammer, like that of so many characters before and after him, was used as a source of amusement, and as a convenient shorthand for a weak, nervous character.
A Fish Called Wanda
Actor Michael Palin, inspired by watching as his father, tense and frustrated, struggled daily with his stammer, is one of a number of public figures advocating for a better representation of people with speech impediments in popular culture. Palin teamed up with John Cleese to produce one such character: stuttering hit-man Ken Pile, of A Fish Called Wanda, a man whose speech impediment was not his defining characteristic, who was intended to be as three-dimensional and well-rounded as every other character in the ensemble.
Palin’s carefully crafted character pushed stammerers into the spotlight, although opinions on abrasive underdog Ken were understandably divided. Some were pleased to see a character with a stutter at the heart of a cult classic, but others, such as Jeffrey K. Johnson, felt that Ken’s trajectory was as painfully predictable as countless stuttering stereotypes before him.
Over the course of the film, Ken learned to physically stand up to anyone who dared to mock his speech, eventually overcoming his cowardice and, in turn, his symptomatic stutter. For many, the transformation of his cautious character was yet another heavy-handed approach to a sensitive subject. Four years after Ken’s big screen debut, Palin was contacted by an affable businessman who had struggled with a stammer since childhood.
Travers Reid invited Palin to a meeting with himself and speech therapist Lena Rustin. They spoke about
stammering, about therapies, and about Palin’s experiences growing up with a father unable to confront his struggle with fluent speech. Just 12 months later, in 1993, the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children opened in London.
Tense, insecure and fearful
The problem, as many of the patrons visiting the Centre will find, is that a patronising perception of stammerers and stutterers persists far beyond our television screens. Johnson’s study cites Barry Guitar, author of Stuttering: An Integrated Approach to Its Nature and Treatment, who says that, ‘research
has shown that most people, even classroom teachers and speech-language pathologists, stereotype people who stutter as tense, insecure, and fearful.’
Though a recent wave of pop culture icons with speech impediments may have helped change the discourse around stammering and stuttering, there is still some way to go. Famous figures like UK Pop Idol contestant Gareth Gates and King George VI, as played by Colin Firth in The King’s Speech, are at the forefront of better, more considerate portrayals, not reliant on us mocking or pitying those who stammer, stutter or stumble over their words. But all too often, speech impediments are still seen as endearing personality quirks, rather than symptomatic of the debilitating anxiety issues that can lie beneath.
Jake Céileachair is a 22-year-old student from London who struggled with slurred and stammering speech as a child and now campaigns around disabled rights and other issues affecting young people. He thinks that although the portrayal of speech impediments in the media has become kinder, people who struggle with their speech are still not being taken seriously enough. ‘I think it’s being fetishised and seen as something cute to an extent,’ he says. ‘When it comes to my impediment, people find it adorable or feel compelled to correct me, even though I can speak fine most of the time.’
A turning point
2013, however, heralded something of a turning point when over 11 million people tuned in to British TV and watched in awe as Musharaf Asghar, a 16-year-old boy from Yorkshire, gave a speech to his school assembly, having previously struggled to say almost anything at all. According to Guardian TV editor Rebecca Nicholson the two-minute clip was ‘one of the defining moments of television in 2013’.
Asghar struggled with an acute stammer which, despite regular speech therapy sessions, was proving difficult to cope with and was threatening to quash his chances of passing the oral component of his English GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education). It wasn’t until his English teacher watched The King’s Speech and suggested Asghar listened to music through headphones while he spoke that he was able to focus on overcoming his speech impediment.
Asghar passed his English GCSE and is now at college continuing with his studies. But for Richard Whincup, a staff trainer for the McGuire Programme, a course taught by recovering stammerers, the speech that inspired millions was a source of frustration. ‘I was yelling at the television, and social media was buzzing with stammerers saying: “You’ve got it all wrong!” ‘
Although the musical method can work temporarily, Whincup says, it has no permanent benefits, and isn’t a quick cure for a speech impediment. It was out of this frustration that the McGuire Programme, which has helped improve the lives of thousands of former stammerers or ‘graduates’ worldwide, contacted Asghar and filmed the one-off ‘Stammer School: Musharaf Finds His Voice’, following the then 17-year-old and four other young people on one of the McGuire Programme’s intensive four-day courses.
Iain Mutch joined the McGuire Programme at the age of 33, and is now one of its regional directors. Up until his first session, Mutch had let his stammer dictate his life, leaving him embarrassed in social situations and forcing him to live in fear of public speaking. Then, in 2000, he avoided giving a eulogy at his father’s funeral, because he was worried about stumbling over his speech. Five days later, in August 2000, he was in Bournemouth on his first McGuire Programme training course.
‘I think fundamentally the McGuire Programme is unique in that it’s all involving people that have been through it themselves, everyone in the programme has stammered themselves,’ he tells me. ‘The coaches, the management, everyone on the programme is someone who got to a point of saying, “Enough is enough, I’ve got to do something about my stammer”. ‘Our approach is very intense. It’s a four-day residential course with about 50 hours of coaching, meaning it works out as the equivalent of a year of weekly hour-long sessions.’
The McGuire Programme markets itself as a holistic approach, tackling the fear and anxiety that causes and is caused by impediments, rather than simply working on the symptoms evident in speech. ‘It’s something I think we do to ourselves,’ Mutch says. ‘It’s that chicken-and-egg moment; nobody has an answer. There might be a genetic trigger, or something out of our control, but somehow we start to alter our behaviour to avoid the sound we struggle with. It just knocks our confidence. Then we start finding ways not to speak and not to engage in the speaking process.
‘Lots of programmes believe society needs to change to accept the 1% of people who stammer, but we believe that the 1 per cent need to confront what’s stopping them speaking like the other 99 per cent. It’s like having a broken leg: if you have a broken leg you do something about it.’
Everything the programme does, from the public speeches given by its graduates to the videos shown of its directors, now fluent speakers, in their stammering days, is about creating role models for people with speech impediments. In Bournemouth 14 years ago, Iain Mutch sat down and watched Richard Whincup give the course’s opening speech. He was inspired. ‘I thought, “I can see what I want to be – I can see a fluent speaker.” It gives you hope; you can see a way out. I thought: “If he can do it, so can I”.’
Now Mutch, like the thousands of other McGuire Programme graduates all around the world, is standing up and giving the speeches, a different person to the one who, 14 years ago, would shy away from social situations for fear of tripping over his words. The McGuire Programmes encourages its graduates to aim for eloquence, rather than mere fluency, and many are involved in public speaking associations like Toastmasters, Association of Speakers Clubs, and Rostrum, going on to regularly win public speaking awards.
With confrontational, innately televisual approaches and characters like these making it onto our screens and into our conference halls, speech impediments are becoming harder and harder to ignore. The only thing left to do, McGuire course leaders argue, is to stand up, take a deep breath, and face the fear.