As if making a simple phone call or asking for directions isn’t difficult enough for someone who stutters, even worse can be the knowledge that people assume you must be nervous or not very bright.
Dr. Rodney Gabel, communication disorders, knows this firsthand. As a child, he began to stutter severely and, despite the best efforts of his teachers and parents, he was unable to overcome it. It was not until he came to BGSU as an undergraduate and received therapy that he learned to communicate fluently.
Today, Gabel is heading five innovative research projects aimed at understanding the life experience of people who stutter, as well as perceptions of others surrounding stuttering. The goal is to learn how to combat public misconceptions and provide effective aid to people who stutter. He is also reaching out to people who stutter through a number of specialized, intensive clinics at the University—the only such programs in the region. (See related story.)
“We hope to serve and be better advocates for adults and kids,” said Gabel, who also serves as a consultant to school districts and founded the Bowling Green chapter of the National Stuttering Association, which Derek Daniels, one of his doctoral students, co-directs.
Helping with the research and the clinics are a number of students, including several master’s- and doctoral-level students and one undergraduate. For them, the work has provided valuable knowledge and experience not typically gained in academic settings, where the topic of stuttering is often given short shrift, according to Gabel, a board-recognized specialist in fluency disorders.
Many speech-language pathologists report being uncomfortable or ill prepared to work with people who stutter, he said. This may be due to a continuing reduction in preparation of speech-language pathologists in the area of stuttering, which then leads to schoolchildren who stutter having difficulty getting the treatment they need as even fewer therapists specialize in treating the problem.
“Our master’s students will come out with 40-60 hours of clinical experience,” Gabel said. “Hopefully, that will have a positive impact across the state as they become practicing clinicians.” Some will also have a deeper insight gained through the research projects, he added.
Gathering firsthand information
Affecting three and a half million people in the United States, or about 1 percent of the population, stuttering is a chronic problem that often lasts into adulthood, Gabel explained. It affects four to five times more boys than girls.
The implications of stuttering on emotional health and career choice are among the subjects of the studies Gabel and his students are conducting. They are examining the topic from the outside in, asking people who don’t stutter about their opinions on, for example, what careers someone who stutters might follow; and from the inside out, asking people who stutter to describe their experiences with their families, school and work. They will also be asked what therapy they have had and what they have done to overcome their problem, which could help guide future speech pathologists.
Gabel and his students have access to a wealth of information from the participants in the communication disorders department’s stuttering clinics. “What a rich resource of data we have to look into!” he said, noting that, while stuttering has been examined extensively from a clinical perspective, the actual experience of people who stutter has not been researched. “For years, we didn’t explore what people who stutter tell us about what it’s like to stutter.”
|'I hope to use the voices of people who stutter to educate the larger population'|
Daniels, the doctoral student, has been studying the school experiences of people who stutter. “The project originated from my own experiences growing up as a person who stutters in school,” he said. “Society is very sensitized to certain disabilities and less sensitized to others, like stuttering. I hope to use the voices of people who stutter to educate the larger population about the experiences in school of people who stutter.”
Gabel said these experiences often include teasing, bullying and not being called on in class. People who stutter are frequently seen as shy or nervous, and are treated as such, he said.
For his study, Daniels is using several methods to gather information, including conducting 10-15 in-depth, one-on-one interviews with adults who stutter about their school experiences, plus holding several focus groups of five to six people each. He will analyze the participants’ stories for themes and develop a descriptive survey to distribute to the larger population. “I hope to expand this study someday to include parents, schoolteachers and administrators,” he said.
How the world views those who stutter
The second area of research concerns how people who stutter are perceived.
Adam Schlagheck, a senior from Genoa majoring in communication disorders, has spent the summer compiling and analyzing the results of a survey on stereotypes about people who stutter. Following an initial pilot study of about 20 participants last semester, the current study asks participants open-ended questions about characteristics they feel are common to people who stutter, whether they think people who stutter would have difficulties related to employment and what careers they think would be suited or not for people who stutter. They were also asked to provide the rationale for their opinions.
Like many of the people in the survey, Schlagheck said, “I didn’t know anything about stuttering and I was nervous about talking to people who stutter. But I am so comfortable talking to Dr. Gabel that I could ask him for advice about how to approach it. That has allowed me to become perfectly comfortable with them as well.”
Initial results from the survey show many misconceptions, he said. People reported beliefs ranging from stuttering being completely “fixable with therapy,” to being a sign of low intelligence, Schlagheck said.
“A widely held misconception is that people who stutter have an anxiety disorder,” Gabel said. “They don’t, but their stuttering can lead to a lot of other problems.”
The survey also revealed that participants who reported knowing someone who stutters tended to be “far more empathetic,” Schlagheck said. “And their opinion about what jobs are suitable was much less limited; they tended to be advocates for people who stutter.”
Teachers can play an important role in guiding students toward college or career choices, he said, so their perceptions of those who stutter may have a great impact. It is the researchers’ hope that the information gathered through the study of people who stutter and their educational experiences can be used to effect change in teachers’ attitudes.