FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Stutterers, long the butt of jokes and bullying, are finally emerging from the nightmare many have lived, thanks to a new British film that explores one famous man's struggle.
The film, "The King's Speech," is spurring many to speak openly about the frustrations they experience daily and bask in the new awareness.
Making phone calls. Answering a question. Talking to strangers. Becoming the center of attention. Interactions most of us take for granted can become sources of stress and shame for people who stutter.
"I used to spend so much energy trying to hide it," said Osman Qureshi, 29, a University of Miami medical researcher who lives in Boca Raton, Fla. "I had to build up my confidence and stop caring what the other person thought.”
Qureshi went to see "The King's Speech" recently with five fellow stutterers who attend a Florida Atlantic University support group. The film tells the story of King George VI, who sought to overcome his impediment, with the help of an unorthodox speech therapist, as World War II was brewing in Europe.
Stutterers say their disorder is often misunderstood as a lack of intelligence. Although its causes are not clear, the latest research shows many stutterers face motor-skill and language-processing challenges, with genetic and psychological factors also playing a role.
There is no cure, although therapy is usually helpful, said Sheryl Hunter, a spokeswoman for the National Stuttering Association whose 8-year-old son has the disorder.
About one in 30 children have the impediment, but most outgrow it. Some stutterers you may know include Vice President Joseph Biden, country singer Mel Tillis, NBA Hall of Famer Bill Walton and television journalist John Stossel, all of whom are featured in The Stuttering Foundation's "Famous People Who Stutter" brochure.
Despite this star power, stutterers are often depicted as buffoons. Cartoon characters such as Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd and Piglet in "Winnie the Pooh" were known for their stammers. More recently, in a 2005 episode of HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," actor/writer Larry David confronted a man with a stutter who believed he deserved a parking space for the handicapped.
"Too many people feel it's OK to make fun of stutterers," said Dale Williams, a Florida Atlantic University communication sciences and disorders professor who has gotten stuck on words that start with d or t since he was 4.
Williams said he used to dodge saying the numbers "two" and "ten" at all costs. As an adult, he began to confront his stutter to better deal with it.
"I had to start putting myself in situations I was trying to avoid so I could get to the point where I could control it," said Williams, 51.
Michel Bitton, of Margate, Fla., said he also has to face up to his stutter instead of fleeing it. He said he sometimes is fluent in conversation for 10 minutes and then is unable to speak clearly for the next five, for reasons he cannot explain.
"It has a lot to do with your level of confidence and how you feel about yourself," said Bitton, 45, a computer network administrator. "The key for me is anticipating the next block, keeping my air flow going and speaking slowly.”