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Understanding, accepting people who stutter focus of film by 2 ASU students

Nicole Greason

George Ramos and Jesus Ledezma think stuttering is a misunderstood condition and that myths about it should be dispelled.

They agree that people who stutter are neither less intelligent nor less productive than others, and that in some ways, they are smarter and stronger than other people because they have to navigate through an impatient world that stigmatizes them.

Ramos, who graduated from Arizona State University in May with a bachelor’s degree in speech and hearing science with honors from Barrett, The Honors College, and Ledezma, a rising senior honors student double majoring in filmmaking practices and health care compliance and regulations, worked together on an honors creative project focusing on people who stutter.

The project, called “A Conversation on Stuttering,” is a documentary film aimed at raising awareness about stuttering. Still not fully understood by modern research, stuttering (called stammering in the United Kingdom) is a diagnosis often accompanied by ridicule, shame and misconceptions.

According to The Stuttering Foundation, a nonprofit organization helping people who stutter, there are 70 million stutterers worldwide and about 3 million of them are in the United States. U.S. President Joe Biden and King George VI, father of Elizabeth II, the current queen of England, are two well-known stutterers.

Ramos and Ledezma, both from Mesa, Arizona, set out to interview researchers, clinicians and people who stutter to gain insight into the impact stuttering can have and to promote acceptance and understanding of stutterers.

Ledezma said he and Ramos spent nearly a year working on the project, doing in-depth research, finding and interviewing subjects, and filming and editing. People who appear in the film include an artist, a managing director at a technical school and a young Arizonan who stutters, as well as a speech language pathologist and a researcher.

The film captures conversations on a range of experiences from sometimes emotional interviews with people who stutter.

Ramos said that through this project, he and Ledezma hope to further open dialogue about the themes of identity and understanding differences and diverse perspectives that can make for a more accepting world.

Ramos, who plans to stay at ASU to pursue a master’s degree in communication disorders and ultimately work with clients who have speech fluency disorders, said that working on the film “taught me the importance of listening to people and really taking in who they are and how they feel and making time with them count.”

Ledezma said that as a filmmaker, “this was my first time dealing with a topic this sensitive, and I learned how to be more empathetic through filmmaking practices by incorporating editing techniques and flows that helped convey the genuine responses and messages the interviewees had for the documentary."

In the film, Jaclyn Boyes, managing director at Per Scholas in Phoenix, talked about her experiences as a person who stutters.

“The video did a wonderful job of balancing the real-life experiences of adult stutterers and the clinical perspective. The result is an educational film that also promotes empathy in viewers,” Boyes said. 

“We all share a fundamental human desire to be understood by others. The video does a beautiful job of sharing the stuttering experience. My hope is those who watch it will be better able to understand and connect with people in their lives who stutter,” she said.

Eric Sundt, an artist who stutters, from Apache Junction, Arizona, also appeared in the film. He said he wanted to help shed light on a condition many people are not familiar with and “to have people know what it’s like to be in my shoes and what I have to do to deal with their not understanding.”

Myra Schatzki, a clinical associate professor of speech and hearing science in ASU’s College of Health Solutions who advised Ramos and Ledezma on the project, said more information about what it’s like to live as a stutterer is needed to promote understanding and lessen the stigma placed on people who stutter, and “A Conversation on Stuttering” helps fill that need.

“Gaining perspective on the emotions and struggles behind stuttering directly from stutterers has value in how we, as a society, can be more supportive of our differences. From a therapeutic perspective, the project adds the emotional element to stuttering that we still need to understand and develop in how we can support our clients,” Schatzki said.

Schatzki said stutterers face lifelong challenges in a world that has expectations of fluent communication and that health insurance does not cover the cost of therapeutic treatment and other services for them because stuttering is seen as a developmental disorder.

“If our society continues to have expectations of fluent communication, then we need to support their treatment,” she said.

Jennifer Buckler, a speech pathologist and clinical assistant professor at Midwestern University in Glendale, Arizona, who appeared in the film, said stuttering has been making its way into the public eye recently with films such as “My Beautiful Stutter” and people who stutter – like President Biden and singer Ed Sheeran – sharing their experiences publicly.

“We have a long way to go. Those who speak differently still experience bullying and are targets of jokes or dismissal of themselves as individuals because of their differences. By making the discussion of stuttering something that all feel free to engage with, it creates understanding and alliances,” she said.

“Stuttering is just a different way of speaking. It is not something a parent did or some calamity that the person experienced. It is not contagious and it is not something a person can just ‘think about’ or ‘breathe through’ to change. It is a part of who they are. I’d like the world to be more patient, compassionate and better listeners, not just with stuttering, but with getting to know and accepting others,” she said.

Ramos and Ledezma screened a 42-minute version of the film in April and received great interest from ASU faculty members who wanted to use it as a teaching tool. The film already has been shown to ASU speech and hearing science graduate students and members of the National Student Speech Language Hearing Association at ASU, a professional organization for speech and hearing science students.

Ramos and Ledezma plan to re-edit the film to add more footage. They hope to present the film at the 2023 conference of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, enter it in festivals and offer it to educators in the field of speech and hearing science for classroom use and training.