The pursuit of fluency as a goal is often frowned upon, in the stuttering self-help movement
At the current post, I will highlight a number of concepts that are central to a current book project I have been working on for the past two years.
In my own way of dealing with stuttering, thirty-five years ago, I relearned how to speak. I learned fluency as a second language. I learned a set of fluency skills, practised them every day for several years, and I haven’t looked back since. Such an approach, however, is often frowned upon in the stuttering self-help movement, which I’ve been a part of for thirty-four years. 
Thirty-five years ago, in July 1987, I attended a three-week speech clinic in Edmonton. A year after attending the clinic, in September 1988, I founded a local self-help group in Toronto for people who stutter. That’s when I became intensively involved with volunteer work on behalf of people who stutter.
Over the next fifteen years, I was involved in the founding of national stuttering associations in Canada and Estonia. I was involved, as well, with the founding of a stuttering association which operates at the international level, bringing together national stuttering associations from around the world.
For fifteen years, from 1988 to 2003, I was intensively involved with the self-help movement. Since then, I’ve been less intensively involved. However, altogether, my involvement in such a form of volunteer work has spanned thirty-four years, from 1988 until the present moment.
Concepts of relevance for a current book project
The founding of self-help organizations is a matter of community self-organizing. Communities use their own spoken and written words, in order to bring people together, and launch organizations that will serve the needs of the people coming together. Typically, such organizations are involved with information sharing, advocacy on behalf of a particular cause, and outreach into the wider community. Many kinds of community organizations exist, and they serve many different purposes.
Today, my involvement with stuttering self-help organizations is as an observer and researcher. Being less intensively involved than previously, I observe things somewhat at a distance. As an observer and past active participant, I am writing a book about the life and legacy of an Alberta speech professional, Einer Boberg (1935-1995), who was co-founder, in December 1986, of the Institute for Stuttering Treatment and Research, or ISTAR for short.
The ISTAR clinic, located in Edmonton, is the speech clinic where, over a three-week period in July 1987, I relearned how to speak. The other co-founder was Deborah Kully.
The book is for a general audience, which makes for an interesting challenge. The challenge is to address relevant concepts, related to what stuttering is, and the ways it can be dealt with, in a way that captures the interest of the general reader. Of necessity, I must look at happenings, and consider general principles in the wider society, which resonate with the challenge of dealing with stuttering. [2, 3]
Developments since 1995
One chapter in the book will deal with developments in stuttering treatment and research, and in the stuttering self-help movement, that have taken place in the twenty-seven years since 1995, which is the year when Einer Boberg died.
Many of my recent interviews have been with people who stutter and clinicians who are using podcasting and video to raise awareness about stuttering, and to establish connections among people who stutter, in Latin America, Africa, and China. I have been learning that the major networking and information sharing that is being done among people who stutter appears to be now occurring more and more in the online ecosystem. A big change is underway which I am now documenting for my book about Einer Boberg.
Learning fluency skills has, indeed, worked well for me; however, just stuttering openly can also be a great way to go
From conversations at a May 2022 international conference in Montreal, and from recent interviews for the Einer Boberg book project, I’ve had the opportunity to recall some standard parts of my own communications (and avoidance of communications) repertoire, in the years before I learned fluency as a second language.
I think of things such as word substitution, circumlocution, and the avoidance of speaking situations. These are standard approaches, when a person who stutters wishes to deal with stuttering in a particular way.
Another way to deal with stuttering is to go ahead and just stutter openly, which in practice means stopping the practices of word substitution, and circumlocution, and the avoidance of speaking situations.
From recent interviews, I can add, I’ve learned that the matter of being open about being a person who stutters makes more sense in some parts of the world than it does in others. In some parts of the world, including in parts of the English-speaking world, by divulging that you stutter, you may be welcomed with open arms as an openly-stuttering exponent of neurodiversity – of neurodiversity, as it relates, in this case, to speech production. In other parts of the world, however, if it becomes known that you are a person who stutters, you may be out of a job.
The approach that I learned in Edmonton, in a three-week clinic in 1987, involved the learning of fluency skills and it also involved being open about being a person who stutters. As a matter of course, the clinic taught me to cease the substitution of words, to cease circumlocution, and to go ahead and speak – instead of avoiding the speaking situations that a person may encounter, or has the potential to encounter.
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An early version of fluency shaping, which as I understand was in use starting in the 1970s in the United States, gave rise to a robotic, monotone speech pattern and ignored matters that did not involve the technical details of fluency shaping. Because the term ‘fluency shaping’ tends to be directly associated with this early version of the teaching of fluency skills, I generally avoid using the term. Instead, I refer to fluency skills or the concept of fluency as a second language.
The monotone speech pattern associated with 1970s-era fluency shaping was the outcome of a particular method for the teaching of the prolongation of syllables, during the initial stages when a person is learning fluency skills. Rather than teaching clients to prolong syllables differentially (whereby accented syllables in a word or phrase are prolonged slightly longer than unaccented ones), the early fluency shaping approach instructed clients to prolong all of the syllables in a word or phrase the same length of time.
A frequent complaint from clients, in such circumstances, was that (a) the tradeoff between stuttering and speaking like a robot was not a good tradeoff; (b) the application of the fluency skills, in everyday speaking tasks, gave rise to a disjuncture between language formulation and speech production; and (c) relapse, in which stuttered speech reappeared after a period of weeks or months after attendance at a fluency shaping clinic, occurred among a sizeable proportion of graduates of the 1970s-era fluency shaping approach to dealing with stuttering.
More recent iterations of the 1970s-era fluency shaping approach may have tended, as I understand, to take into account concepts such as being open about being a person who stutters, and may have done a better job of addressing the challenge of dealing with relapse. It’s possible, as well, that differential prolongation of syllables has been introduced, in order to ensure that clients acquire a more natural sounding speech pattern. In research for the book about Einer Boberg, I will be seeking to determine what practices are currently in place for the contemporary treatment approaches, for which 1970s-era fluency shaping serves as the foundation.
A bottom line here, I would argue based on the available evidence, is that (a) not all approaches to fluency skills give rise to a robotic speech pattern and (b) the teaching of fluency skills and being open about being a person who stutters are compatible strategies, with regard to dealing with stuttering.
The task of reaching a general (as contrasted to a specialist or academic) audience entails a particular challenge. Each of us has a particular area of expertise and the challenge, for purposes of reaching a wider audience, is to address topics outside of one’s area of expertise.
In Einer Boberg’s case, his expertise entailed the application of a data-oriented approach to dealing with stuttering. In my own case, my expertise entails experience in finding an effective way to deal with stuttering; in my younger years, I stuttered severely to the extent that in some cases I was effectively mute, by which I mean that there were times when I could not get out any words at all. My expertise also entails community organizing, public relations in the volunteer sector, and freelance writing.
Einer Boberg also had interests in matters which can broadly be defined as political. In such matters, he was not an expert, in the sense of being an academic practitioner of political science, or in the sense of being a political analyst or holding office as an elected official. He was, instead, an amateur in such an area in the same way that a person such as myself is an amateur in such matters. In my book, I will explore some of his political views, as such an exploration enables a general reader to learn a bit about the history of Alberta and Canada.
The topic of stuttering, in itself, is not going to be a source of a great deal of interest for general readers. Thus in my research for the book about Einer Boberg I seek to find what I would describe as on-ramps to wider topics which are of potentially strong interest for a general audience.
The on-ramps lead toward topics such as a distinction between a data-oriented approach to contemporary issues, as contrasted to an approach that eschews data. (Boberg and the colleagues who were working with him were strongly data-oriented in their approach to stuttering treatment and research.) When I refer to contemporary issues, I have in mind phenomena such as climate change, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
A related topic concerns the history of how language is used in humankind’s attempts to make sense of things, and the role that storytelling plays in the sense making enterprise. These are great topics, of interest for many people. Accordingly, these are among the areas I am researching, in my book project dedicated to the life and legacy of Einer Boberg.
The wider topic is self-help/mutual aid in general. A useful resource that I’ve been recently reading is: Self-Help/Mutual Aid Groups and Peer Support, by Thomasina Borkman with Carol Munn-Giddings and Melanie Boyce (2021).
A blurb for the study I’ve bought may copy through Amazon.ca) reads:
Thomasina Borkman reviews English-language social science research on North American self-help/mutual aid groups (SHGs) and organizations and some from industrialized countries. SHGs, known by many names, are voluntary, member-run groups of peers who share a common issue, utilize lived experience, and practice mutual aid. Borkman’s autoethnographic approach highlights her international SHG participation. Despite initial common values and practices in the 1960s and on, Alcoholics Anonymous, the mental health SHGs, and other SHGs evolved in the US as three separate social movements that became institutionalized by 2000; their history, characteristics, achievements and supportive infrastructure are summarized. British contributors Munn-Giddings and Boyce show in European countries how socio-political contexts shape self-help/mutual aid. Research has shifted from SHGs to peer support since 2000.
I have previously highlighted Borkman’s work in a keynote address in 2003 at an International Fluency Association World Congress on Fluency Disorders in Montreal:
Self-help and the International Scene