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"The King's Speech": Raising Stuttering Awareness

Colin Firth's Portrayal of King George VI Is Praised by Stuttering Organization

By Tim Locke
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Rob Hicks, MD

Dec. 28, 2010 -- The King's Speech -- the new film starring Colin Firth -- could be one of the early box office hits of 2011. It is hoped that looking back at the stuttering monarch's life will help raise awareness of stuttering, a condition that affects around 3 million adults in the U.S., according to the National Stuttering Association.

Firth plays King George VI -- the father of Queen Elizabeth II -- who was affectionately known as "Bertie." The actor's portrayal of Bertie's struggle with stuttering, which took the form of "silent blocks," has been praised by the British Stammering Association (BSA) for its authenticity. [Editor's note: In the UK stuttering is referred to as stammering.]

The BSA interviewed Colin Firth for its web site. He tells the charity: "It's the third time I've played someone with a stammer, and you do experience something when you play it. You really do, some part of you goes there. I like to try to play what the character's doing which is to try not to, and it's the sheer physical effort really struck me. It had an effect on my body, this film particularly -- headaches. I am doing a double journey, I have to learn to stammer and then I have to play someone trying desperately not to."

Silent Blocks

The interview was carried out by the BSA's Chief Executive Norbert Lieckfeldt. He tells Boots WebMD in the UK that he found the film deeply moving. "For me personally, there was a lot of resonance with my own struggle," he says. "The first time I saw the movie I came out totally exhausted. The whole time I was doing sympathetic phantom blocking along with him.

"What he shows are silent blocks, which are one of the ways that stammering can manifest itself. And that was my problem. Every time he blocked I stopped breathing."

Raising Awareness of Stuttering

So what can the film do to raise awareness? "For once we can talk about it," Lieckfeldt says. "Stammering is like the hippo at the party. A cocktail party with a big fat hippo in the room, but no one ever mentions it. They just walk around it. Stammering almost feels like a social faux pas. If you meet someone with a stammer, you're not quite sure whether you should be embarrassed or not -- but you're certainly not going to mention it."

Lieckfeldt hopes to dispel some of the stuttering misconceptions: "The obvious one is 'if only you'd take a deep breath and think about what you want to say, it'll come out.' People who stammer know exactly what they want to say. It's just that their body at that point will not allow them to produce the right sounds in the right order."

"There is a misconception that people who stammer are stammering because they are nervous, or more shy, or more intelligent or forced to be right-handed when they are left-handed: all urban myths."

Changing the Perception of Stuttering

When people leave the movie theater after seeing the film, Lieckfeldt hopes their perceptions of stuttering will have changed. "Stammering is something that happens to all kinds of people, not just to emperors of India.

"What I'm hoping they're going to take away is that it takes a lot of courage to live your life when you stammer. For Bertie, it took a lot of courage to stand up and give a speech. Just as it takes a lot of courage for a 14-year-old boy to go to school in the face of daily ridicule and bullying. Just as the stammering young man goes for that interview; or he makes that phone call to try to get a job; or he goes to the bar and tries to talk to that woman he really quite fancies.

"It's not easy to live a normal life when you are not entirely sure that what you want to say is what you're going to say. It takes a lot of guts."

Tips for Talking to Someone Who Stutters

Lieckfeldt offers these tips for anyone meeting someone who stammers for the first time.

  • Always listen to what is being said, not how it is being said.
  • Keep eye contact, don't look away. That would indicate to the person with the stutter that you are feeling embarrassed.
  • Try not to finish their sentence for them, even if you think you know what they want to say. If you get it wrong, the person with the stutter has to start all over again which is exhausting.
  • Try to slow down your own rate of speech. If you talk very fast without pauses, that speeds up the general level of conversation.

SOURCES: British Stammering Association.Norbert Lieckfeldt, chief executive, British Stammering Association.National Stuttering Association.

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