Shaina Stephens sometimes struggles to speak about her stuttering condition. It’s not because of the severe condition the 21-year-old Galesburg native has had since she was 4 years old. It’s because sometimes even children make her feel dumb. Other times, she feels helpless. Stephens took a hit to the head while running through her house as a youngster. Although experts have not officially connected the events, she said she developed a stuttering problem just two weeks later. She has been living a nightmare ever since.
Shaina Stephens sometimes struggles to speak about her stuttering condition.
It’s not because of the severe condition the 21-year-old Galesburg native has had since she was 4 years old.
It’s because sometimes even children make her feel dumb. Other times, she feels helpless.
“People think I’m stupid,” she said. “They treat me as if I am not as good as they are.”
Stephens took a hit to the head while running through her house as a youngster. Although experts have not officially connected the events, she said she developed a stuttering problem just two weeks later. She has been living a nightmare ever since.
Stephens and her family have been proactive with her condition since it first surfaced. She has been to clinics in Iowa City and Peoria and has even tried hypnosis. Prescriptions of Ritalin were meant to calm her down, as doctors thought the stuttering might be caused by stress.
But nothing worked, and Stephens was frustrated. Her classes didn’t help.
“I didn’t have a lot of confidence,” she said. “School kids are mean. Grade school was bad. Junior high was even worse. In high school, people who I had been in kindergarten with had gotten used to it. But new people would just stare.”
The uncomfortable feeling led to her dropping out of Knoxville High School in 2004 during 11th grade.
“I was tired of it, tired of struggling and everything and I just quit,” she said.
But she didn’t do so as an easy way out. Stephens immediately enrolled herself in the General Educational Development tests. She received high marks and scored 98 percent or higher in all of the subjects.
However, she still deals with what some call the “biggest myth” about people who stutter: that she is stupid.
The biggest myth
Jane Fraser’s father also stuttered severely. When Malcolm Fraser would speak on behalf of the company he co-founded, NAPA Genuine Parts Company, Jane would fear the condition would get in the way.
But Malcolm never let it and in 1947 he founded the Stuttering Foundation of America. Today, Jane Fraser serves as president of the Memphis, Tenn.-based group and said people who stutter constantly face the stigma of being thought of as unintelligent.
“Just imagine tomorrow, you wake up and you’re having difficulty expressing yourself,” Jane said. “It wouldn’t take long to begin to be afraid to get into speaking situations.”
The foundation aims at educating employers, coworkers and even school districts on how to handle a stuttering person. The suggestions include not finishing their sentences and looking them in the eye.
Although any progress on stuttering research is basic at best, Fraser said there have been advances in genetic research. The research shows that 60 percent of those who stutter have had it in the family before.
This helps pinpoint those who might need help early.
“There’s a lot of pressure on a child who stutters,” Fraser said. “New classrooms, new classmates, new building, maybe. All of those things are scary for elementary children.”
She suggests teachers not give these students special privileges but that they are shown that despite the condition, their words matter. This is done by listening with patience, she said.
“Let the child know you care,” she said. “A child who really feels bad about any problems is going to be more sensitive and have more problems.”
On its Web site, www.stutteringhelp.org, the foundation offers several free resources for people dealing with stuttering or who know people who stutter.
As he grew up in Michigan, Tim Stone had a cousin with a stuttering problem. His aunt and uncle read with the boy and eventually he grew out of it.
Stone said he was raised not to judge people. When he met Shaina Stephens online he said fell for her.
“I am not going to judge her for it,” he said. “It’s her personality and that’s what I fell in love with. Not how she could talk.”
For Stone, it was nothing new. Aside from his cousin, one of his best friends in Abingdon also dealt with a stuttering problem.
As the two have grown with each other during the last two years, Stone’s friends have completely accepted Stephens and the two are engaged to be married.
“They love her,” Stone said.
Stephens has all the worries that come along with an engagement. Unfortunately, however, she also has an added concern.
As she speaks of the extra obstacle she has to deal with, the frustration in her voice comes out clear.
“I’m stressing about my vows right now,” she said. “I’m going to stand in front of all those people and I’m not going to be able to say what I want to say. It’s just stupid crap that girls shouldn’t have to think about.”
Despite years of dealing with the condition, one reason alone keeps Stephens hoping that help is on the way: her 11-month-old son Austin and she’s pregnant with her second child.
“I’m stressed out because I don’t want him going to school or having a mom who stutters,” she said. “I’m embarrassed about it. I don’t even talk sometimes.”
Not long ago, she tried an experimental device that resembles a hearing aid. She said using the $5,000 device helped her condition tremendously.
But she knows it’s going to be a tough thing to scrape the money together. While Stone pays the bills, Stephens has not worked in two years since her last job lasted just three days because of her stuttering.
She said she doesn’t know how she and Stone will afford it but that the device could change her life. In the meantime, she must still occasionally deal with at times being mocked by young children.
“I just feel stupid because (sometimes) I have a 3-year-old making fun of me,” she said. “Everybody’s embarrassed of me. I’m ashamed of it and I can’t help it at all. I can’t do anything about it.”
Marco Santana can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eight tips for teachers of stuttering children
1. Don’t tell the child “slow down” or “ just relax.”
2. Don’t complete words for the child or talk for him or her.
3. Help all members of the class learn to take turns talking and listening. All children — and especially those who stutter — find it much easier to talk when there are few interruptions and they have the listener’s attention.
4. Expect the same quality and quantity of work from the student who stutters as the one who doesn’t.
5. Speak with the student in an unhurried way, pausing frequently.
6. Convey that you are listening to the content of the message, not how it is said.
7. Have a one-on-one conversation with the student who stutters about needed accommodations in the classroom. Respect the student’s needs, but do not be enabling.
8. Don’t make stuttering something to be ashamed of. Talk about stuttering just like any other matter.
Source: Stuttering Foundation of America, www.stutteringhelp.org