POCATELLO, Idaho — For a person who stutters, their obvious problem with speech fluency is just the tip of the iceberg. Just ask Idaho State University speech and language pathology professor Dan Hudock. He has dealt with his own stuttering issues his entire life.
“Most of the issue is below the surface,” Hudock said. “When someone averts their eyes or laughs at us, it makes us not want to try to communicate.”
That’s when the fear of stuttering trumps the stuttering itself as a problem for people.
It’s also why the intensive clinic put on by the Northwest Center for Fluency Disorders at ISU the past two weeks combined counselors with speech and language pathologists in a joint effort to help nine clients from throughout the U.S., ages 12 to 34, deal with their lives as people who stutter.
It was the first stuttering clinic of its kind ever held in the world, according to Hudock.
Hudock knew early in his life that speaking would not come easy. He was among the 5 percent of children who go through a short period of stuttering but ultimately became one of the 1 percent who never stop.
The ISU professor had caring parents, and they started taking him to speech therapy while he was pre-school age.
“They even drove an hour and a half to Pittsburgh for my therapy two times a week,” Hudock said.
It helped, but the loss of words, pauses and repetitions didn’t stop.
Hudock remembers well the time he was standing in line for lunch during kindergarten and he could not get past the letter “P” when asking for a slice of pepperoni pizza. As he struggled, the line started to stare.
“I saw the look of absolute terror in the cafeteria lady’s eyes,” Hudock said.
The embarrassed boy bolted from the lunch line.
“I remember not eating that day,” Hudock said. “I remember crying and walking the halls.”
Hudock considers himself lucky because he developed close friends in his Pennsylvania hometown. They accepted the fact he stuttered and didn’t ridicule him for it. And Hudock was open with teachers about the fact he stuttered. He did well in high school and became captain of the football and tennis teams. But his speech problem didn’t go away, and stressful situations amplified it.
None was more stressful than the night his friend rolled a car he was driving with Hudock in the passenger seat.
“We were on a dirt road, and he was driving way too fast,” Hudock said.
His friend lost control, and the vehicle rolled four times before landing on its top. Both the friend and Hudock crawled out a broken back window, but the friend was bleeding badly from a head wound and slipping in and out of consciousness. After wrapping his T-shirt around the wound, Hudock called 911 on his cellphone.
“I called 911 and the operator hung up on me, twice,” he recalled.
Hudock’s stuttering was misinterpreted as a prank. He had to rally his injured friend to explain to the 911 operator that Hudock stuttered before he could explain their location and get help to respond.
Hudock said he was determined to never give up and ultimately decided to pursue a career in speech pathology where he could help others with communication disorders. His determination led to a bachelor’s degree from Clarion University of Pennsylvania and both a master’s and Ph.D. in communication sciences and disorders from East Carolina University. He joined the ISU faculty last year.
According to the professor, research has proven that when people who stutter are willing to identify themselves as stutterers it can have a profound impact on their lives.
“When people come to the point they accept that they stutter, there’s an increase in confidence,” Hudock said.
It’s why his intensive two-week session included many opportunities for the clients to interact with strangers and identify themselves as people who stutter. It took place at Farmer’s Market, in the shops in Old Town Pocatello and during a field trip to Jackson, Wyo.
The exact cause of stuttering is unknown. It is four times more likely to occur in males, and it has been linked to family genetics.
Hudock said the worst thing someone who stutters can do is surrender to the fear and anxiety and stop trying to talk.
“I’ve worked with people in their late teens and early 20s who have never made a phone call or ordered a meal in a restaurant,” Hudock said.
Graduates of the workshop were required to give a final speech Saturday afternoon to close out the collaborative effort, and their comments spoke volumes about the way fear of stuttering can steal someone’s life and freedom.
Kevin of New York City said he became addicted to sleeping medications and isolated himself just to cope with his fears. He has now changed his outlook.
“No matter what the world thinks of us, we have the voice of truth inside of us,” Kevin said.
Anna read a poem about her struggles as a junior high and high school student and talked about “the battle between you and your mouth.” Her failure to be honest about stuttering had cost her a shot at a doctoral program in physical therapy.
The youngest client, Trey of Meridian, spoke of being bullied in grade school and how his fears made it difficult or impossible for him to speak when he wanted to.
And then came the most labored speech of the afternoon. Despite a severe stuttering disorder that prevented 18-year-old Torsten of Boise from saying even one word when he first came to the workshop, the young man gave his speech. With great effort and determination, his words came out slowly.
“When you’re terrified to open your mouth, you listen,” Torsten said. “And you learn people have many interesting things to say — if you give them the time.”
The inside of the ISU lecture hall exploded with applause when Torsten’s speech ended.
The 14-day effort to help these people who stutter involved nine graduate students in speech and language pathology and six graduate students from ISU’s counseling program. Overseeing their efforts were Hudock and associate ISU speech pathology professors Jody O’Donnell and Sarah Knudson — all of whom donated their salaries for the session to help pay for client scholarships. Counseling professors Chad Yates of ISU and Ronwood Vereen of Syracuse University also donated their time.
Help from the Brenda Bertsch Malepeai Memorial Fund also assisted the clients from New York, Virginia, Arkansas, Texas and Idaho with their expenses.
“It’s been an eye-opening and very emotional experience,” Hudock said. “It’s amazing the progress that can be made in a two-week period.”