I’ve stuttered for 61 years. I’ve been embarrassed by it, cursed it, cried over it, and even tried to hide it—all while praying it would just one day magically disappear. It never has.
In my mid-twenties, I believed that stuttering was ruining my life. I blamed it for my failure to hold down a job, for ending my relationships and, essentially, for standing in the way of my happiness.
The wounds felt so personal, and yet I had lots of company: Three million Americans are affected by this disorder—roughly 1 percent of the population—according to the Stuttering Foundation of America. SFA defines stuttering as one in which the flow of one’s speech is disrupted by involuntary repetitions and the ‘prolongations’ of sounds, syllables, words or phrases, as well as involuntary silent pauses or blocks in which one is unable to produce sounds.
No one knows what causes stuttering. In my case, therapists and psychologists speculated that I might have begun to stutter around second grade, when I was forced to change from writing with my left hand to writing with my right. (Decades ago, lefties were perceived as evil and sinister. Children might be spanked, chastised, or have their left hand tied behind their back to convert them into righties.)
I started to stutter shortly before my seconded grade ended. It did not become an issue with me until we moved from Kingston, PA to Cleveland, Ohio in the summer of 1952. The first time I stepped on the playground across the street from where we lived, some of the children started mimicking me when I stuttered.
At first I laughed with them. However, as the summer rolled on, I laughed less at the mimics and started getting angry. My oldest brother Tommy often stepped in before trouble started and said loudly, “Stop it.” They did.
I did not make lasting friends in my neighborhood during the five years we lived in Cleveland. I am certain my stuttering contributed to me not making lasting friendships. In the five years we lived in Cleveland, I was never invited to a birthday party or a bar-be-que. However, we invited neighborhood children to my birthday parties.
Some years in grade school were pure hell. My stuttering was a source of ridicule by my classmates. Some of my male classmates were told by their parents they could not play with me because my stuttering was contagious.They obeyed their parents. I was deeply hurt to be told by classmates they were not playing with me because I stuttered.This situation occurred from grades three through eight.
I remember having classmates mimic my stuttering in front of me and laughing.Sometimes I cried when those situations happened.Sometimes I was so angry that I started fights.I lost most of them.I had many bloody noses, bruised faces and torn shirts.In my fifth grade year, I believe I set a record for the most after school detentions.During that year Sister Francis Regis probably saw me write on the blackboard several thousand times, I must not fight.
Something good happened to me that during my fifth grade year. My father and Sister Francis Regis convinced me to become an altar boy.Altar boys had to learn Latin and say it without stuttering, I accomplished that goal with pride. I was an altar boy from my fifth grade through college. I served regular Masses, funerals, weddings, and ordinations. In my junior and senior years in high school I was master of ceremonies at solemn high Masses at St. Mary’s. As master of ceremonies, I directed the other altar boys on what to do and even some priests.Nobody ever questioned my ability to give fluent commands while serving Mass.
I n grade school I was denied speaking parts in two Christmas plays because of my stuttering. This happened in six and seventh grades. I tried and tried and tried to tell the teachers I could do the roles. My pleas were not heard. I felt rejected.
From 1959-1963, I went to St. Mary’s High School, Wilkes-Barre, PA. High school presented new challenges for my stuttering. At least one teacher a year stopped calling on me after he or she discovered that I stuttered. My French teacher called on me only once over the course of two years. She thought she was doing me a favor, but she was not. Life was better with my science teacher; she would tell me in advance the material she planned to have me read the following day believing, correctly, that if I rehearsed the section over and over, I would stutter a lot less when she called on me. She was correct.
One of the most disappointing and painful experiences was being told as a sophomore that my desire to join the debate club was rejected because, “You stutter,” Sister Luke told me. She was supported by my classmates.It was a dark day in my life. I was determined the rejection would not crush me. I knew that if I wanted to be seen as a capable person and not as a stutterer, I had to do something that would make people forget my stuttering.
Stuttering did not go over well with the opposite sex, either. At school, I once heard half a dozen girls mock the way I talked. That experience soured me on the girls in my class; I had only one date during all of my high school years, and when graduation day finally arrived I was relieved.
One repeated situation stands out in my mind in high school.Sister Mary Felecian was the principal. She had read that who people stutter did not stutter when they sing. She made me try out for the school glee club three years in a row. I was such a poor singer that I was rejected each year. When she tried to get me to try out a fourth year, my response was, “Sister don’t waste my time, and I won’t waste yours.”
I was given a two week detention. A family priest friend persuaded Sister to lift the suspension after three days.
While I was in grade school, I had speech therapy during my fourth, sixth and seventh grade years.I don’t remember much about the therapy in my fourth grade year, and I don’t remember the name of the therapist. I remember that at the end of that year, my father stopped it because my stuttering was getting worse.
In my sixth and seventh grades I was introduced to a variety of therapies designed to reduce my stuttering. One therapy was to swing my arms back and forth while speaking. Another technique was to tap my finger on my leg while speaking. A third involved self- hypnosis. A fourth called for me to speak slowly and to avoid saying words that I had conditioned myself to stutter on. Another therapy was building a selective vocabulary. Yet another was singing what I wanted to say. Then there was starting every sentence in anger. Focusing my eyes on a person in an audience and speaking directly to that person. My favorite was speaking with hard gum balls in my mouth. None of these therapies worked for me.
It was not until my junior year in high school that I started speech therapy again.The speech therapist was John Seaman. He came into my life at the right time.He helped me gain control of my stuttering.He taught me a lot about controlling my stuttering. The more I controlled my stuttering the more I enjoyed myself.
“John,” he told me, “You must control stuttering. You can’t let stuttering control you.” It was great advice.Once I understood that I can control stuttering, my life changed. After a year of intense therapy, I was in control of my stuttering, and I felt good about myself. I entered college with a positive attitude.I was determined to build a better future for myself and college was my key.
In my fifties I was introduced to the SpeechEasy program. The SpeechEasy is an electronic device designed to alleviate stuttering by manipulating auditory feedback via time delays and frequency shifts. The program is a combination of technology and techniques t. Worn in one ear and similar in appearance to a hearing aid, Speech Easy decreased my stuttering dramatically and increased my ability to communicate fluently. .
I used the SpeechEasy several dozen times at conferences over a five year period. It was very effective. I stopped using it when it stopped working. It was expensive to repair; therefore I did not repair it.
My years (1963-to-19670 at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, PA, were a lot better than high school. Teachers routinely called on me to answer questions and make presentations. In one of the college’s science fairs, I used model cars that I builtto show how Sir Isaac Newton’s three laws of motion worked. My exhibit won a science fair award, which I accepted in front of hundreds of people. That was the only time, over the course of four years that I spoke before more than a few dozen people, and did not stutter. People congratulated me, and wondered aloud how I seemed to breeze through my remarks. It was because I’d rehearsed my speech scores of times before I had to stand there and accept the actual award.
During my junior year, however, I began to experience out right discrimination as I ventured off-campus. It was spring 1966, when I started interviewing for jobs. I sought posts in government, journalism and science. Without exception, every person who interviewed me said that, because I stuttered, I wouldn’t be asked back for a follow up interview.
In the final days of college, I realized that if I wanted to achieve my career goals, I would have to work longer and harder than my peers, so that I could blend in and appear not to have a speech disorder.
Though, unlike many of my classmates, I graduated without a job in 1967, I was still determined to succeed. I intended to show the world that I could make my mark as a writer. A little over a year later, I left Pennsylvania with about $300 in my pocket, bound for Washington, DC.
Shortly after I arrived in Washington, DC, I met people who saw that I had potential. Army Times Publishing Company hired me as an assistant production editor and junior writer. My boss encouraged me to develop my writing skills and to learn about production editing. I accomplished both goals.
I left Army Times Publishing Company in 1971, and signed a two-year contract as an environmental writer/editor with Franklin Institute. I covered environmental conferences in the U.S.
Unfortunately, my boss was bothered by my stuttering. When an article I wrote won an award; he refused to let me accept it. He collected it on my behalf, so I didn’t embarrass him or the organization by getting on stage and stammering through my acceptance speech. So when my contract was up there, I left.
I was hired by Raytheon Services, Inc. where I covered anti-submarine warfare conferences; I also covered the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for Raytheon Services Company. Those assignments took me around the country. A highlight of my time at Raytheon was an unexpected opportunity to update the Merit Badge pamphlet for the Boy Scouts of America, which I worked on with my colleague Bob Service. We created a 64-page booklet that sold more than 50,000 copies in about 4 months. For years the book remained the most profitable Merit Badge publication in the history of the Boy Scouts of America.
I had been working for Raytheon for two years when I was offered a position as senior staff writer, communications division, United Way of America. Mario Pellegrini, Senior Vice President, United Way Productions, had read a story I had written titled, “Strangers in Our Own Land.” It was an autobiographical story about two incidents that happened to me while travelling in Arizona.
Even though I’d come a long way, I still had some anxiety around speaking on the telephone. I had to overcome whatever remnants were left of that fear when I started working for United Way of America. During the interview phase, my future boss told me: “If you can’t make your own calls, you don’t carry your own weight.”
His statement shocked me. I remember stuttering when I said, “Mis, Mister Pell, Pell, Pell, Pellegrini. I will carry my weight.”
I became the senior staff writer for the communications division, where my duties included writing public service announcements, articles, speeches and newsletters, while supervising books that we published, as well as fund-raising materials.
The three years that I worked at the United Way were the most creative and productive of my life. I collaborated with the CEOs and staffs of such companies as XEROX, AT&T and Ford. I also worked with leaders of the AFL-CIO, United Auto Workers and Communication Workers of America. Those leaders believed that supporting local United Ways and affiliated agencies made for strong, healthy communities throughout America.
I also crossed paths with celebrities, including actors such as Jack Lemon, and Cliff Robertson, and football greats Roger Starbuck and Franco Harris. Robertson and Lemon gave of their time to work on United Way movies. Starbuck and Harris worked on the United Way/ National Football League public service announcements. I remember Franco Harris had the largest hands I have ever seen. Not once in three years did I hear any comments about my stuttering; only my skills mattered.
I foolishly believed that my stuttering did not matter. It was my multiple abilities that counted. Then, I learned that some staff did not like my stuttering and made derogatory remarks about it and me. I confronted these people who had spoken out against me. They did not retract their statements. Nor did they retract their behavior towards me. They rarely spoke to me. I was never invited to their meetings. They communicated to me by inter office mail/ I did not allow their attitudes and behavior impact my work.
Three years after starting work at UWA, I was exhausted. The physical toll of long hours week after week made my stuttering worse. Burnout motivated me to look for another job.
While job hunting, I had an experience I will always remember. I went to Alexandria employment office where I experienced discrimination by government agencies.
“What are you looking for regarding salary?” a vocational rehabilitation counselor asked me. I told him about $40,000. He reviewed my portfolio, and then got quiet for a while.
“How long have you stuttered? It’s quite severe,” he said, apparently perceiving that my career opportunities were limited, even though I had a proven track record of 10 years as a writer. He tried to talk me into taking positions that paid half of what I deserved, but I declined. I left his office vowing never to go back. I never did.
One month after I left United Way, the late Frank Bowe, then executive director of the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities, hired me as his director of communications with a salary of $40,000.
ACCD was one of the most demanding positions I have held. We were the largest civil rights organization in the country representing people with disabilities.Fifty-hour work weeks
were the norm.One of our great goals was to make disability issues national issues. We succeeded magnificently.
While working at ACCD, I received an award from Hofstra University. On the morning of acceptance, I was the fourth speaker. The three speakers in front of me spoke too long. Before I could speak, I was told to keep my presentation to three minutes. I did. The speakers behind me were not asked to shorten their speeches. The same situation occurred two additional times but at different places. Each situation angered me because I knew the reason I was asked to cut my speech short was because I stuttered. I felt discriminated against.
While working at ACCD, I took an 18 month course in speech therapy.When I started therapy, I was stuttering more than 80% of the time. Some of my stuttering blocks lasted a minute or longer. I was determined to get control of my stuttering. My teacher was Dr. James Hillis.He was the head of the Speech Language department at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Using a computer, I was able to produce graphs that showed when my stuttering was starting, rising and finishing. The graph always showed an explosion when the block ended.
Twice weekly, I went to therapy for 90 minutes a session.I had never worked so intensely on a project.For the first time in my life I could say I was controlling my stuttering. As I approached my 18th month, Dr. Hillis told me that I had no more sessions and I was finished. He said, “John.I have taught you everything I know about stuttering. You have exceeded my expectations. Go forth and stutter no more.”
When I finished the speech therapy course, my whole life changed.My stuttering rate was under 20% and sometimes zero.I was no longer afraid to speak in public.Stuttering less gave me more energy.I was ready to take on the world.