"King's Speech" lends a voice to the Science Cafe

PhotoColin Firth in “The King’s Speech.” The movie sheds light on the challenges stutterers face. Photo courtesy of the Weinstein Company.

Story by Carly Shinn, NewsNetNebraska

“I have a voice,” King George VI shouts in the Oscar-winning movie, “The King’s Speech.”

Those four words, part of a climactic scene in the film, also provided a main message for a lecturer in Lincoln at an innovative program aimed at bringing science to the public. Prof. Charles Healey used the phrase at a March 31 Science Cafe program to explain how and why some people stutter.

The University of Nebraska Medical Center started its Science Cafe program in 2009. The cafes involve face-to-face conversations with scientists about current science topics and are held in Omaha, Lincoln and Scottsbluff. The next cafe will be May 3 at The Slowdown in Omaha.

“It’s a great opportunity for the public to hear about science from experts in a very relaxed, comfortable setting,” Healey said. “And it was my first time presenting in a bar.”

Kacie Gerard is a special events associate for UNMC’s public relations department and said science cafes help to bring science literacy to the community.

“People need to know about science and not just from learning about it in the classroom,” Gerard said. “It’s exposing people to things they otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to.”

Healey has worked as a professor of speech-language pathology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for more than 33 years. He specializes in stuttering and said “The King’s Speech” has helped to shed light on the challenges stutterers face on a daily basis. The cafe allowed Healey to discuss the advancements in its therapy.

Stutterers and the professionals who work with them, he said, were skeptical at first about the way the disorder would be portrayed in “The King’s Speech.”

“There are a number of movies in Hollywood that have portrayed people who stutter as being of very low intelligence and goofy, neurotic. Or they make fun of them,” Healey said. “Stuttering is not a laughing matter.”

The movie accurately reflected the medical establishment’s view of stuttering in the late 1930s, the speech expert said. Since then, however, specialists in the area look less at such issues as psychological trauma at early ages and more at a broad range of issues including interpersonal relationships, brain chemistry and genetic history. Stuttering, researchers have found, tends to run in families.

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Charles Healey specializes in stuttering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Photo by Carly Shinn

During his presentation, Healey stressed the importance of recognizing the impact stuttering has on the personal lives of individuals.

“As clinicians and specialists, we can’t ignore or diminish the effect stuttering has on their lives,” Healey said.

Education on stuttering has become popular since the release of “The King’s Speech” in 2010 and its Academy Award win for Best Picture earlier this year. Colin Firth’s portrayal of King George VI also earned him the Best Actor award and the stutter Firth produces, according to Healey, is similar to the speaking problems the real king suffered from.

The movie therapist also cast about for successful approaches, something Healey did himself when he first got into the field.

One of Healey’s first clients as a graduate student at the University of Kentucky in 1969 was an adult who stuttered. At the time, no one on the faculty had expertise in working with stutterers and Healey was thrown into it.

“I read as much as I could in books and journals to try and see what I could do to help this individual. I wasn’t coming up with much,” Healey said. “Back then there wasn’t a lot written about treating stuttering. I felt really frustrated that I couldn’t help this individual more than I did.”

After that experience, Healey decided to dedicate his professional career in speech pathology to people who stutter.

The cafe attracted a broad mix of people, ranging from children and parents to speech professionals. One of those in the crowd was Anne Smith, a Purdue University professor who has known Healey for more than 20 years. Her work deals with the physiological aspects of stuttering and she is happy about the effect “The King’s Speech” has had on public education.

“Like Charlie said, it’s brought a lot of positive attention,” Smith said. “People are interested in learning more about stuttering. It’s great.”

Local resident Linda Ager was turned on to the event via UNMC alumni e-mail and said she enjoyed learning about the topic.

“I thought ‘The King’s Speech’ was an incredibly moving and ultimately uplifting movie,” Ager said. “I have great sympathy for stutterers. It’s such a social stigma.”

Duncan Case, a professor in the architecture department at UNL, bemoaned what he saw as the lack of progress in treating stuttering.

“It’s a difficult subject,” Case said. “It looked primitive the way people were treating it back then and apparently they’re still treating it in the same way because it is a difficult thing to understand. It gave me more respect and understanding of the problem.”

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The University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Science Cafe is held at red9 in Lincoln. The program also has events in Omaha and Scottsbluff. Photo by Carly Shinn

Still, Healey has learned a lot over the years and has developed his own perspective on how to assess and treat stuttering. He tries to assess a stutterer’s difficulties from several perspectives, looking at such areas as the physical and social effects, as well as a sufferer’s emotions and attitudes. This differs from the way most speech pathologists view the disorder because it is much broader than focusing, for instance, on the performance of a person’s larynx. Healey said many clinicians only work to treat at a motor level, but that those are simple answers to a very complex problem.

“Simple corrective devices people offer as advice really are not effective at all. The other parts of the system aren’t working,” Healey said.

More than three million people in America stutter according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Disorders (NIDCD). And while it affects individuals of all ages, stuttering most frequently occurs in children who are developing language. Healey said 98 percent of the people he treats at the UNL Barkley Speech-Language and Hearing Clinic on east campus exhibit developmental stutters, as opposed to neurogenic stutters brought on by stroke, accidents or traumatic events. He encourages anyone dealing with a form of stuttering to contact him or the clinic.

“It’s never too late to work on their stuttering,” Healey said. “I just want to give them a sense of hope.”

Everyone has a voice.

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