A local support group says "The King's Speech" helps them address misconceptions and frustrations.
Kyle Krzenski was having trouble getting his words out.
"That we're not as s-s-s," he said, "s-s-s-," then paused and closed his eyes.
The other 30 people in the room sat quietly, waiting for him to finish his sentence.
Krzenski had been asked to name a common fallacy about people who stutter. It took him awhile to respond, because he sometimes gets hung up on "h" and "s" sounds.
"That we're not as smart as other people," he said, after several seconds of intense concentration.
The setting was one of few where he could be sure no one was going to stare, giggle or squirm uncomfortably as he spoke -- a support group for adult stutterers, held at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis.
During this movie-awards season, "The King's Speech," starring Colin Firth as a stuttering British monarch, has been under a near-constant spotlight. Nominated for 12 Oscars, including best picture, there's at least one community that doesn't need to wait until Feb. 27 to give it a top spot in their hearts -- people who stutter.
They say it's giving them a chance to teach others about their impediment and how to react when speaking with someone who stutters.
From Porky Pig to "A Fish Called Wanda," stuttering seems to be the last disability people think is harmless to mock. Even at this year's ceremony for the British version of the Academy Awards, the host made a joke about stuttering.
But 3 million people in the United States stutter, or about 1 in 100. Vice President Joe Biden, actors James Earl Jones, Nicole Kidman and Harvey Keitel, and singer Carly Simon are just a few of the bold-face names who have struggled with it at some point.
"It's always on your mind," said group member Dan Jaker. "Every time you need to talk to someone, you have to plan how you're going to approach it. On the phone, you get hung up on because people think you're not there anymore."
Jaker said the movie really hit home. "I felt exposed, like that was me up there on the screen," he said.
One by one, group members around the table spoke of instances when stuttering has caused anxiety or heartache in their interactions with others.
Jacob Leider recalled being asked to read a passage aloud in front of 40 people during his daughter's first communion class. He declined, afraid he wouldn't be able to get through it. "If I could go back again, I would have liked to try, for her," he said.
About one in 20 young children stutter, but most stop as they get older. However, fewer men do, so adult male stutterers outnumber women by about 4:1.
Several students and a few spouses also attended the group that night. One young woman had tears in her eyes when she looked at her boyfriend and said, "I always tell him what a great nonverbal communicator he is."
Many in the group praised Firth for communicating the psychological toll stuttering can take, saying it was the most accurate on-screen portrayal they'd ever seen. One thing the movie doesn't get quite right, they said, is its implication that traumatic childhood experiences or nervousness actually cause stuttering.
Anxiety or painful memories can make stuttering more pronounced, but they aren't the root, which is physiological. Despite extensive study, researchers can't pinpoint exactly how, said Linda Hinderscheit, a speech pathologist with the University of Minnesota who co-leads the support group, a chapter of the National Stuttering Association. "There are emotional components to stuttering, but those are more of a response to how other people are reacting," she said.
The two worst things you can do when someone starts to stutter are the very things most well-meaning people would instinctively try -- fill in the word the person is trying to say, and look away politely instead of continuing to hold the person's gaze. Both can actually heighten feelings of anxiety and shame, Hinderscheit said. Her advice: "Just be patient and wait for them to complete what they're saying."
The physical experience of stuttering is different for everyone. For Erin Bodner, 30, it's a feeling of choking. "My throat tightens and air can't get out," she said. "I get a lot of tension in my neck and cheeks, and a knot in my stomach."
Bodner, also a speech pathologist who co-leads the support group, had speech therapy as a child, in the late 1980s and early '90s, but said the therapist didn't address her attitudes and emotions. "If you're focusing only on physical tools, you can feel really hopeless," she said.
Everyone who stutters learns to develop coping mechanisms to minimize the obviousness. In the film, King George learns to make a short "ah" sound before the word "people" when practicing his address about the onset of World War II.
Bodner used to dread answering the telephone because she couldn't say "hello," a hard word to avoid, one of what she calls her "feared words." But she figured out if she added the easier-to-say "yes" up front, it was much less of a problem.
"So that's how I began answering the phone, 'Yes, hello,'" she said. "If you stutter, you become a walking thesaurus, because you have to build a list of substitute words."
After more intensive therapy as an adult, Bodner says she is fluent almost all the time these days. But certain things can trigger her stuttering, such as when she's sick or stressed at work. For her, peace has come with acceptance.
"I've learned so much about myself and it's had a huge impact on who I am today. You can't wake up every day and hope you stop doing it. You have to accept it."
If everyone else did, too, stutterers could be saved a lot of grief.
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046
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