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Colin Firth's interviews on stuttering strike a chord with Tampa parents

For some viewers, Colin Firth's appearance last week on the The Late Show With David Letterman may have seemed like just another actor promoting a movie.

But it was so much more for Tampa's Gabe and Sheryl Hunter.

Firth's discussion of his role in The King's Speech may be a key step in bringing new awareness to stuttering. As King George VI, Firth plays a real-life British king who unexpectedly rose to the throne and then worked with a speech therapist to prepare for a key address.

The story may inspire people who stutter, like the Hunters' 7-year-old son, Logan. But equally important to the couple is how Firth's thoughtful interviews — he appeared on four national shows Tuesday and Wednesday — may clear up some misconceptions about stuttering.

"Hearing him say stuttering has nothing to do with intelligence and knowing people who watch Letterman heard that is really significant to us," Sheryl Hunter said.

Logan began stuttering at age 3. The Hunters quickly immersed themselves in the subject.

Sheryl learned that Logan cannot be expected to outgrow stuttering. She learned that many celebrities have successfully dealt with the challenge, including actor James Earl Jones and singer Carly Simon.

And she learned that stuttering is more physiological than psychological, and can involve genetics. Parents are wrong to blame themselves, or associate stuttering with stress or nervousness, she said.

Through her quest to learn more, Sheryl joined support groups. She now serves on the board of the National Stuttering Association, working as the co-chairwoman of family programs for 25 youth chapters nationwide. She often counsels parents when their children have been diagnosed.

"I tell them the worst thing to do is to not acknowledge it," Sheryl said. "I think they're afraid of their child realizing it as a problem, but I think kids know it. They know when something is not right.

"When you fail to acknowledge it, it becomes a secret, and they're shameful. The worst thing to do is make them feel like they have to hide it."

Sheryl and Gabe have created a University of South Florida scholarship for graduate students in the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences' department of communications sciences and disorders.

Although Logan still deals with the condition, Sheryl said he excels academically in his second-grade class at St. John's Episcopal. He plays golf and soccer, exudes confidence and has lots of friends, she said.

While grateful for Logan's attitude and accomplishments, Sheryl said the problem shouldn't be underestimated.

"It would be naïve to think that a significant speech impediment doesn't make relationships, employment, public situations and maintaining confidence in the world more difficult, as is made evident in The King's Speech," she said.

"We tell our son that stuttering is his challenge, just like other children may have difficulty reading … or suffer from health conditions.''

Sheryl said the movie is not perfect in its portrayal of stuttering, partly because it's a period piece set in the 1930s and '40s. What matters, she said, is its important conclusion.

You don't have to be the king of England to succeed as a person who stutters.

That's all I'm saying.

Some tips

• Do not assume the person lacks intelligence.

• Let the person finish what he or she is saying; be patient.

• Do not advise the person who stutters to "slow down" or "relax" — these comments are not helpful.

Source: Sheryl Hunter, National Stuttering Association board member. For more information, go to www.nsastutter.org.

Colin Firth's interviews on stuttering strike a chord with Tampa parents 11/26/10 [Last modified: Friday, November 26, 2010 9:19pm]
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