About the authors:
|Author: Tessa Byrd is currently a first semester graduate student striving to attain her Master’s Degree in Communication Sciences and Disorders at Western Carolina University (Cullowhee, North Carolina, USA). For her Bachelors of Science Degree, she studied Communication Sciences and Disorders at the same university. She fell in love with the program and decided the charming school tucked into the mountains was her heaven. Tessa is blessed with two loving, supportive parents who just moved to North Carolina. She is eager to work with all people who have communication disorders and is particularly interested in serving people who stutter.|
|Faculty Sponsor: David A. Shapiro, Ph.D., CCC/Speech-Language Pathologist, is a Fellow of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, a Board Certified Fluency Specialist, and the Robert Lee Madison Distinguished Professor at Western Carolina University (North Carolina, USA). For 37 years, Dr. Shapiro has taught workshops, provided clinical service, and conducted research on six continents. His book, Stuttering Intervention: A Collaborative Journey to Fluency Freedom (2011, PRO-ED, www.proedinc.com) is in its 2nd edition and continues to find a wide international audience. Dr. Shapiro is actively involved in the International Fluency Association (IFA) and International Stuttering Association (ISA), received IFA’s Award of Distinction for Outstanding Clinician, and is currently serving as IFA’s President for 2013-2014. Dr. Shapiro is a person who stutters, has two adult children with his wife, Kay, and lives near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.|
Honestly, when I first heard about the opportunity to submit a paper to the 2014 ISAD Conference – We Speak with One Voice – I was hesitant. I am not a person who stutters, so I did not feel worthy. However, I have carried my own label, dyslexia. Although the two disorders are unique, the underlying emotional pain connects the two. Through the lens of dyslexia, it seems possible to gain a perspective into the reality and challenges associated with stuttering. This became clear to me the semester I declared a major in Communication Sciences and Disorders.
When I was a freshman in college, I shadowed a speech-language pathologist (SLP) who worked for a school on a small island near the Equator. She was inspiring. In my short month of observations, she made tremendous strides in a variety of school-age populations including children with articulation disorders, phonological disorders, and autism spectrum disorders. However, she made little progress with her client who stuttered. She did not enjoy fluency therapy and often complained before and after treatment. It shocked me; she was eager to work with her other clients, but not this one. Her client who stuttered was a darling middle school girl who was sweeter than Splenda, which is three hundred times sweeter than sugar. The client and clinician were both frustrated with the lack of progress. The client was tracking her progress on a graph, but this was not motivating to her. It appeared that her disfluencies were increasing with treatment. In the session I observed, the tension in the room was so thick I could have cut it with a knife. During the session, the girl’s eyes occasionally filled with tears and her muscles tensed as she fought to keep the teardrops from falling. Understanding the pain that cannot be expressed in words, my heart pounded with pain for her. The girl was a younger version of me.
I had gone to middle school in the very same building and it seemed that nothing had changed over the years. My mind flashed back to the reading therapy I was forced to endure in the same jail cell of classroom. The therapy room was made of concrete and there were no windows, which contributed to the dark atmosphere. I was convinced then that Hell was filled with timed reading samples followed by people asking me to explain why I thought my reading was not improving. Every session I struggled through a reading activity and tracked my “progress.” There were never any significant improvements. My clinician routinely asked why my reading scores were not improving. I hated that question. It felt like my heart was branded with the word “failure” each time the question was asked. Furthermore, the question was insulting. If I knew why my reading was not improving, I would have quickly made the necessary adjustments. I wanted nothing more than to be released from reading therapy. With every silent, passing minute, I thought of escape plans. I wondered if the girl who sat in my old seat felt the same way that I had years before.
Observing the middle school girl in stuttering therapy, I saw the clinician tap her pen on the graph being used to track the girl’s fluency, and the clinician asked the girl to explain why she was not improving. “There it is again, that hateful question!” Again I felt the sting and again my heart burned with the word “failure.” That question hurt just as intensely six years later and from a different seat. Everything within me wanted to comfort the girl, but how could I explain that I understood and felt her pain? I was never a person who stuttered. Her eyes could not contain her tears any longer. They started to fall, and the girl struggled through an answer about how it had been a hard week. I blinked hard and looked at the twitching, sterile florescent lights on the ceiling. I had used the same excuse, almost word for word, six years ago. The repeat of history and the pain witnessed in the very same room were undeniable. This was her jail, the same jail that had been mine. The clinician instructed me to go down the hall and pick up a box of tissues. I do not know what was said when I was gone, but when I returned the girl’s tears had stopped. The session ended, but the pain lingered in her eyes – and mine.
When I was alone with the clinician, we started to talk about fluency treatment. I was a freshman in college and had limited knowledge about stuttering. To my surprise, she told me she did not have much training in fluency disorders. I did not know then how common a scenario that was – and it continues today. She tried to educate herself by finding research-based treatment methods, but she still did not consider herself an expert. She pulled a folder out of her desk that was filled with seemingly thousands of papers. She had copies of articles and research reports, but I could not understand how so much research could lead to such a lack of progress for this little girl.
The answer did not come until my last year of college while I was pursuing my undergraduate degree. I had the great fortune of studying fluency and voice disorders with Dr. David Shapiro. On the first day of class he asked, “What does it mean to have a communication disorder?” “What does it mean to stutter?” He asked us to consider how we could possibly expect to impact the communication and life of a person who stutters unless we stopped long enough to consider and to get as close as we could to the reality, to the world, to the paradigm of stuttering. I probed that question and have every day since. At the time the question was asked, rushing back to me were the tensions that could be cut with a knife, the hateful question, the inescapable and windowless jail cell, the graphs that confirmed my lack of progress, my fading hope, my heart that routinely was branded with the word “failure,” my tears, the florescent lights, and my prayer to be released from reading therapy.
Indeed the emotions tied to stuttering seem similar to those bound to dyslexia. It is difficult to live on a planet where the road to success is paved with personal challenge. To be successful in most careers, one must be able to read efficiently and to speak fluently. It can be daunting to grasp desperately at the bricks paving the path to success and to fall time and time again. I often felt like I was living in a world that was not meant for me because of who I am. I think people who stutter often feel the same way.
However, I think my personal experience is helping me to understand, if not get closer to, the world of stuttering. I think SLPs must work to understand what stuttering is and what it means to stutter so they can see through the eyes of the people they are committed to serve. To understand what it means to have a communication disorder, I have thought about the meaning of communication success. For me, communication success means hope. We SLPs, if we are willing to learn with and from a person who stutters, can be an avenue for bringing a light of hope to another person. That is success. Potentially, that hope can spring from SLPs everywhere.
Fluency therapy can inspire dreams. When a dream truly has embraced the heart of a man, or middle school girl, or a family, nothing can stop it from being fulfilled. Neither stuttering nor dyslexia can stop a dreamer. Sometimes it takes someone to help light that spark, that light of hope. There is hope in all of us. I hope that as I become an SLP, I will always work to get as close as I can to the reality of another person’s world and that I will be able to bring hope to someone who might feel hopeless, just like I did. The path to success is marked with loose bricks. Those are the bricks of hope. Even dreamers may slip and fall sometimes, but they always can stand up, sometimes with guidance, and dream on. Without hope, therapy is a jail cell; with hope, dreams can be set free.
I don’t often reflect on how I found hope and the ability to dream. Perhaps this conference is an opportunity for such reflection. It wasn’t until eighth grade. At church I met a saint of a woman who volunteered to be my Sunday school teacher. She had an odd name. The first time I heard her name, I thought she might be a monster and I would find another jail cell. However, she was simply angelic. Sunday school became my safe zone. It was a place that was free of judgment and snide, hurtful comments. In reading therapy, I had to discuss why my reading was poor, choppy, and broken, but in Sunday school, I was encouraged to analyze the content of what was being read. That shifted the attention away from my disability and onto my ability. I discovered that I had abilities! The Sunday school teacher often told me that I was unique, and that I was good at analyzing the readings and concepts in a deep, meaningful manner. I had never heard such a thing; I was taken aback. That was the first positive thing anyone had ever said about my reading.
I wish I could say that through extreme dedication, passion, and perseverance, I became an exceptional reader. That would not be the truth. I still do not like reading. I am sure a herd of snails could charge through a field of caramel faster than I can read. However, that is not the point; the point is that I read. I read because I have hope. Hope can come from anywhere and anyone. My hope was set ablaze through one remarkable woman. She saw a part of me that I did not know existed, and she encouraged me to build on my strengths instead of dwell on my weaknesses. I know traditional therapy often focuses on improving weaknesses, and I understand the value of achieving a level of competence. But isn’t it a disservice to dismiss a person from therapy before enabling him or her to acknowledge and pursue strengths? In a world that is designed around strengths, all people can succeed. Sometimes it takes one remarkable person to shine a light on one’s strengths. One kind woman lit up the hidden potential that was hibernating inside my soul. Hope can be found beyond a person’s challenges, struggles, or disabilities. It is found in potential. There is always potential, and that is always a reason for hope.
It is my sincerest wish that anyone who is reading this and is still in a metaphoric jail cell understands the truth. If no one has ever told you, then let me be the first. You are more than your weaknesses, and you are more than your insecurity. You have potential and you have talent that is uniquely your own. There are so many beautiful things dancing within your heart that are beating to be set free. That is why hearts beat. The heart pumps potential through your veins. Your pulse makes it evident that you have the potential to achieve your own objectives and to make the world a better place. Truly I hope you understand your value. It took someone whispering those words into my jail cell before I found hope, and when I found hope, my dreams found freedom.
My dream is to inspire others to dream. I still have so much to learn about becoming an SLP and showing people that I care, and I am convinced I am in the perfect profession. Most things in life require communication in one form or another and most dreams do too. By enabling people to realize their communication freedom, I am opening a door of potential so that their dreams can pass through. I am so blessed to be in graduate school and committed to a profession where I can help others find hope and make their dreams come true.
Thank you so much for reading my thoughts and reflecting with me. I hope, together, we might consider a few questions:
- Dyslexia is my stuttering. What is yours?
- How can SLPs help their clients who stutter realize their dreams and hidden potential?
- How can one person inspire hope in another?
- How can safe zones be created, and what qualities are necessary to make a zone safe? Are these qualities professional and/or personal?
- What are the advantages of approaching therapy from the perspective of a person’s strengths? Are there limitations?
- How can a clinician balance focusing on strengths with approaching each person’s challenges?
- How can people who stutter help SLPs understand what it means to stutter?
- How can both the SLP and the person who stutters contribute to the success of the clinical experience?
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