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Critically acclaimed movie The King's Speech strikes an emotional chord with long-suffering stutterers

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If you think you're tired of strangers asking if it's "cold enough for you," imagine how John Paskievich feels.

The Winnipegger says he can't order a hot beverage on a cold day without the person behind the counter assuming hypothermia has already set in.

Paskievich, 62, concedes that might have something to do with his order: one "small ccoffee with ttttwo creams and nnno sugar."

The documentary filmmaker recently shared that anecdote on The Stuttering Home Page. The website, run out of Minnesota State University since 1997, provided the first online chat room for people who stutter and has a section inviting users to explore the lighter side of living with a speech impediment.

"It's like continually slipping on a verbal banana peel," says Paskievich, who has stuttered since he was eight.

His 2006 National Film Board documentary Unspeakable reveals his own efforts to confront, understand, and demystify a condition that affects about one per cent of the world's population.

Sitting in a Wolseley café, Paskievich chuckles as he recalls another slip on the banana peel: offering to help an elderly blind woman cross Portage Avenue, only to have her scream in terror as he spat out his words.

Sipping herbal tea -- no cream or sugar... easier to order -- he explains how he's able to see the lighter side of "the thing that filled my life with so much fear, pain, shame and self-loathing," as he refers to his stutter in the film.

"I'm allowing it, at this late stage, to be a part of me," Paskievich says. "Being honest about who you are, accepting your strengths and weaknesses, is a wonderful thing."

Self-acceptance is also getting a royal endorsement, thanks to another film about one man's struggle to rise above his affliction.

The King's Speech is being widely praised for inspiring stutterers to speak openly about the challenges and frustrations they face on a daily basis and for giving voice to the unspeakable anguish with which many of them live.

"It shows how emotionally devastating stuttering can be," says Paskievich, who admits he has stored away a lot of pain throughout his life.

"And it's the first film I've ever seen where a stuttering character is actually the hero."

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Colin Firth, who portrays Britain's King George VI, said he found the archival films he studied for the role "literally tear-jerking. You see the neck and mouth go... I saw the vulnerability and immense courage all wrapped up in one moment and the terrible exposure," the actor said in the article.

Winnipeg businessman Fred Brick who, at age 75, can still recall the cruel taunts from his classmates every time he got pulled out of class for another speech lesson, was "captivated" by the picture.

"I think it will make people wake up and if not try to help (stutterers), then at least leave them alone," says Brick, who stammered well into adulthood, but never around family members.

Daniele Rossi, the 37-year-old producer of Stuttering Is Cool, an open-mic audio podcast with the tagline "stuttering and stammering with confidence," says he's thrilled to see Hollywood finally break its stutterer-as-comic-relief cycle.

"I loved that movie!" Rossi, who has already seen The King's Speech twice, gushes over the phone from Toronto. "We weren't the butt of the jokes, which is usually the case."

Despite the number of famous people in their ranks -- Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Winston Churchill all tripped over their words, as do Tiger Woods, Bruce Willis and U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden -- stutterers are often depicted as socially and/or intellectually inferior -- or worse, mentally unstable.

In reality, there's no connection whatsoever between stuttering and intelligence. Nor are people who stutter any more anxious, nervous, fearful or shy than people who don't.

The King's Speech actually reinforces a few common myths about how a stutter initially takes hold, says Paskievich. Having overbearing parents and being forced to write with his non-dominant hand may have exacerbated King George's speech problem, he says, but it's fundamentally a physiological one.

Although the exact cause of stuttering is still unclear, the latest research shows many stutterers face motor-skill and language-processing challenges, with genetic and psychological factors also playing a role.

There is no cure, although therapy can be helpful. Treatment will vary depending on the stage of stuttering, says Karen Kernaghan, a Winnipeg speech-language pathologist in private practice. And while some early interventions may aim for stutter-free speech, with older children and adults, the goal is often "managed-fluency."

"Sometimes negative feelings and attitudes, as well as avoidances, also need to be addressed for progress to be made," Kernaghan says.

Brick says his stutter mysteriously disappeared, for the most part, when he gave his first lecture to a group of business students at the University of Manitoba in the mid 1980s.

Yet, like Paskievich and Rossi, Brick says acceptance and understanding -- from himself and others -- helped them make peace with their condition.

"Even a smile or a squeeze of a hand would really help me at times."

Telling someone who is stuttering to slow down, relax, take a deep breath, etc. is not helpful. Nor is trying to help a stutterer finish his or her sentence.

"Just give us the time we need to speak," Rossi says.

To his fellow stutterers he says, you can't control other people's reactions, so don't even try. But Ross does suggest embracing the banana peel once in a while.

"Once I began to accept it, I was able to laugh at it -- especially when I stutter on the word 'stutter.'"

carolin.vesely@freepress.mb.ca

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Colin Firth, who portrays Britain's King George VI, said he found the archival films he studied for the role "literally tear-jerking. You see the neck and mouth go... I saw the vulnerability and immense courage all wrapped up in one moment and the terrible exposure," the actor said in the article.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 29, 2011 H1

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