Be Quick to Listen, Slow to Speak – Ryerson students share how they cope with speech and language impairments, and how you should react to them

Myriam Kazin says that now she accepts her stutter, and is no longer ashamed when talking to new people. Sarah Chew/RSJ

He was mimicking her again. They had gone out for coffee at Panera Bread in Toronto, and Myriam Kazin was telling her boyfriend a story about her week. Mid-story, she had started to stutter, and he had interrupted her to laugh and say, “What did you say? Repeat it.”

Sitting across from her blond-haired first love, the Russian-born Canadian put down her croissant as she suffered through even more mocking. He would pick these fights just to hear her stutter and ridicule her for it. At 17 years old, a then-naive and impressionable Kazin felt the same burdening embarrassment that she had felt since she first developed her speech impediment at the age of 12.

Growing up with a stutter made her shy, anxious and quiet, thus affecting her academic life and her social life for years. As a now 23-year-old business management student at Ryerson, she said she was always afraid to talk and participate in her classes as a child. On romantic dates in her late teens following her breakup with her first love, she would give short, incomplete answers to their questions.

“I remember after that relationship ended, I was very nervous about dating again, so when I would go on dates, I wouldn’t really talk much [to] them,” said Kazin. “I was more the listener when it came to dating. There were even moments where I would [purposely] mispronounce a word because I didn’t want to stutter, which would cause the guy to make fun of me.”

In a study conducted by Pennsylvania State University, researchers found that childhood victimization due to having a speech and language impairment often negatively affects psychosocial health later in life. For some, that means the development of social anxiety disorder, so Kazin is not alone in suffering the academic and social effects of her speech impairment in adulthood—she is one of over eight million North Americans dealing with language impairments, according to the National Institute of Health. 

The root causes of speech and language impairment are highly contested in the speech-language pathology world. Some experts claim them to be genetic, while others point to developmental issues dependent on a child’s environment or brain injuries.

For Kazin, all she knew was that her stutter started when she immigrated to Canada from Russia. Amidst an extreme culture shock, she had the additional stress of trying to improve her English in school while witnessing her parents go through a divorce.

Speech-language pathologist Inga Manuel explained that people who develop stutters after suffering through a traumatic event, “have a genetic predisposition to it,” because a lot of people witness traumatic occurrences, “and don’t come out of it stuttering.”

Manuel also said that in the long term, individuals with lisps, another common form of speech impairment, could have lowered self-esteem and confidence. However, unlike stutters, lisps can be solved permanently with enough dedication, therapy and support from close family and friends.

Manuel emphasized the importance of completing speech and language therapy, and waiting to see the results in time.

“I think a lot of people don’t understand that speech and language is rehabilitative, so it’s just like if you broke your leg, and then were frustrated that you couldn’t walk the next day,” said Manuel. “It takes a long time and it takes a lot of work to get back to ‘normal,’ I’d say.”

Jason Kwan, a 22-year-old mechanical engineering student at Ryerson, has had a lisp for 14 years. His lisp makes it difficult for him to pronounce words with “th.” For example, he elaborates, “‘brother’ sounds like ‘brudder,’ and ‘think’ sounds like ‘fink.’”

Kwan learned how to place his tongue in the correct spot near his teeth to make the “th” sound when he was younger, but when he tried to apply this rule in his adulthood, he found it interfered with his speech even more and caused him to stutter and speak slowly.

Kwan now focuses on pronouncing one word correctly at a time. He said he has aced the word “three,” but he still said “mother” and “that” with a lisp.

However, Kwan isn’t too bothered by his lisp because he speaks Cantonese at home, where his family hasn’t noticed a difference, and his friends are also very constructive.

They tease him, he said, by saying his speech impairment is “cute,” while also making efforts to teach him how to properly say difficult words by “asking [him] to pronounce a sentence consisting of as many ‘th’ words they can think of.”

In a 20-year-long Ottawa language study, researchers discovered that 25-year-old adults who had had childhood speech impairments performed worse than their unimpaired peers in areas including communications, educational attainment and occupational status.  Despite that data, they also found that the two groups did not differ in their perception of their quality of life.

In other words, adults with histories of early speech impairments felt positive and not defeated about their lives, and this strong sense of wellbeing was attributed to their networks of  supportive family and friends.

Kazin’s own self-acceptance and confidence exemplify the results of this study. Although she underwent speech therapy eight years ago, she still stutters now whenever she feels stressed, panicked or nervous. Her friends, her mom and especially her boyfriend are instrumental in creating a comfortable environment for her when she’s going through a tough time.

Because of that, it’s easy for Kazin to gush about the sharp contrast between her first love and her present boyfriend of two years. “He’s more understanding. He’ll actually want to listen and hear me out if I’m stuttering,” she said. “He’ll tell me to relax, calm down a bit and just breathe and then say what I want to say. Even if it takes me a minute to say one sentence, he will sit there and listen.”

Manuel also agreed with this response, cautioning people who interact with someone dealing with a speech impairment, specifically a stutter, to, “never tell them to slow down or help them finish their sentence.”

Both Kazin and Manuel noted how having patience, either as a person with a speech impairment or as someone hearing it, is a blessing. Kazin said that patience is one thing her “amazing” boyfriend has an abundance of.

“That’s why we’re still together.”

Story by Sarah Chew

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