Is Fluency a Curse Word? (Frank Stechel)

frankAbout the author Frank Stechel.  Frank is a person who stutters. He currently lives in Central New Jersey with his family and Labrador retriever. He is currently retired but worked for 31 years in the vocational rehabilitation office of the New York State Education Department as a counselor, supervisor and manager. He now actively volunteers in his synagogue and community and enjoys the many recreational and cultural activities available in New Jersey and nearby New York City.

The host of the StutterTalk podcast (StutterTalk.com), often refers to fluency as the “f-word” of stuttering. He is both a Person Who Stutters (PWS) and a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP), was a covert stutterer and overcame his fear of talking by openly stuttering and using voluntary stuttering. He, therefore, views the need of some PWS to “chase after fluency”, as he sometimes calls it, as counterproductive, serving mainly to increase concealment and the fear and shame associated with stuttering. He is not opposed to using speech “tools” to modify stuttering – he, for example, has suggested the use of occasional pauses during speaking in order to decrease speech tension – but prefers to describe these techniques as helping someone to “stutter differently” or “stutter more easily” rather than speak more fluently.

Certainly stuttering openly, either as a prelude to or accompanying speech modification, is a hallmark of most legitimate speech therapy, with the possible exception of fluency shaping. It’s also the case that the goals of therapy have to be realistic and many PWS cannot expect total fluency, as it’s traditionally understood. But is it really the case that we can’t, in some sense, “own” fluency as well as stuttering? I would like to briefly examine this proposition:

  1. The definition of fluent, as it relates to language, is (someone who is) capable of using a language easily and accurately (http://www.merriam-webster.com).

Based on that definition virtually all PWS are fluent in, at least, their native language in addition to other acquired languages. Fluency in a language is not only, or even primarily, how proficiently the words are pronounced, but based on knowledge of the vocabulary, grammar, idioms, etc. of the language itself. That being the case, PWS can claim fluency as a birthright in their own linguistic environment no matter how they speak.

  1. Even though as a mild to moderate PWS, and I’m fluent on 80 – 90% of my utterances, my self-definition is still that of a PWS. That is because, as we know, stuttering is much more than the number of our disfluencies, but includes our feelings and attitudes about ourselves and those around us. (See Joseph Sheehan’s Iceberg Theory of Stuttering summarized at http://www.geocities.ws/batalosweb/methods/iceberg.html. Nonetheless, when I challenge myself and use fluency enhancing techniques to be able to say a word fluently, where I previously anticipated problems, I prefer to think of my success as achieving or approximating fluency rather than stuttering more easily or differently. Why does it make a difference? Because – and this is simply my own feeling – when I’m speaking essentially fluently, even with some repetitions or prolongations, I feel in control and can feel the flow of my speech, which is not my experience when I’m stuttering with more tense blockages. That feeling of speaking “essentially fluently” is self-rewarding, not because I’m denying my self -definition as a stutterer, but because my communication is “smooth” and “flowing” which is the very definition of fluency.
  2. There is a lively debate between some people in the self-help and disability studies communities about the value of fluency enhancing approaches to therapy. One group sees stuttering as having intrinsic value, and, therefore, view therapy that enhances fluency negatively. Another group sees value in fluency enhancing approaches – especially with young children who may be able to avoid future stuttering (see the blog Did I Stutter at http://www.didistutter.org/blog for a description of the former position). This is an important debate. However, for those of us who stutter who want to see more effective therapies, I’m concerned that new modalities of treatment will be sidelined if the desire for fluency is considered “politically incorrect”. I’m also concerned that research and funding efforts will not be prioritized within the self-help movement if fluency is not viewed as a positive outcome. This would be unfortunate given the progress in understanding the genetic and neurological basis for stuttering and the prospect for future medical breakthroughs.

In conclusion, I hope that “Stuttering Pride “, the motto of this year’s ISAD conference, will be experienced by ever increasing numbers of stutterers, while bearing in mind that some of us also view our fluency with pride and satisfaction.

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Comments

Is Fluency a Curse Word? (Frank Stechel) — 59 Comments

  1. Hi Frank,
    I’m currently a second year graduate student and I really appreciated reading your perspective. I think it’s really important to take client’s values into account when providing any therapy or services. Not all PWS have the same feelings or views and it’s so important to recognize that. I thought your point on the dictionary definition of fluency was very insightful. Thinking about fluency in terms of ease can shift perspectives on approaching stuttering. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Hi Frank,

    I am a graduate student studying SLP, and I am currently taking my fluency course. Wow, I have learned so much about the emotional aspects of stuttering! I honestly never knew that this was such a controversial topic, but I can definitely see that now. I suppose that if a clinician tells the client that their main goal should be to attain “fluency”, that puts a lot of pressure on the client, and that may or may not be a realistic goal. There may also be some discrepancies among individuals regarding what is considered to be “fluent speech”. I would never want someone to feel ashamed or like they failed just because their speech production is a little different. I, like many of the people that have commented, would say there should be a balance, and it is something that should be thoroughly discussed with the client. My job as the clinician for PWS would be to help the client communicate effectively and confidently,and the approach to get there may vary.

    Sierra Kamplain