Japan Stuttering Project
Shinji Ito established the first self-help group of persons who stutter in Japan in 1965. In 1986, the group hosted the first International Conference on Stuttering in Kyoto, from which the present International Stuttering Association evolved. As well as serving as the Executive Director of the Japan Stuttering Project he has a private practice, teaches speech therapy at several universities and supervises teachers working with children who stutter in public school systems. He has also organized summer camps for children who stutter and their parents for 23 years. A record number of 151 people participated in the 2012 camp. His major publications are: ‘Workbook on Stuttering for Parents, Teachers, and Speech Therapists,’ and ‘Q & A for Children Who Stutter’. He has also coauthored books with professionals in psychiatry and clinical psychology including: ‘Stuttering and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy,’ ‘Stuttering and Assertiveness Training,’ ‘Stuttering and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy,’ and many others.
Stuttering has long been regarded negatively by clinicians and labelled a symptom to be treated. If stuttering could be cured by surgery, or drugs without side effects, it would not be problematic to regard stuttering as some kind of clinical pathology. However, at present no-one knows what causes stuttering, and there is no effective treatment. Given this, continuing to characterise stuttering as a negative condition runs the risk, as many of us have experienced, of fixating those who stutter on a ‘cure’, as if they do not have a life unless the stuttering is cured.
Even if right now the cause were to come to light and a revolutionary treatment developed, it would take a long time for the many people who stutter around the world to see the benefits. Until then, those who stutter would continue to have to live their lives. I believe that, rather than grudgingly tolerating their stuttering, ever with some dream of a cure in their minds, it is more realistic and constructive for people to acknowledge the reality of their stuttering, and live their lives anyway.
It is simply a fallacy that someone cannot live a full life if they are unable to cure or reduce their stuttering. Those of us who stutter have lived authentic lives, however much we may continue to agonise about it. Self-help groups for people who stutter around the world attest to this with large numbers of personal stories. In Japan, too, stutterers eloquently tell their stories of productive working lives—teachers, business people, and others. These are not jobs they have pursued after curing or reducing their stuttering. Rather, they stand as evidence of lives able to be lived without such aims.
Furthermore, by living authentic lives, people who stutter undergo a natural transformation. I myself have not had any special speech therapy at all, but my stuttering is quite different to how it was when I fretted about it. By affirming my stuttering, as a university lecturer I have changed as I have given addresses and lectures in front of people as part of my job. I believe that stuttering alters naturally while we are living our everyday lives.
There are people who credit speech therapy for their current state, but even if therapy indeed presented an opportunity, the change in their stuttering stems from their daily lives, with the natural healing powers of the human body at work. When someone is admitted to hospital with some condition, is treated, gets better and is then discharged, we can talk of the results of hospital treatment, but with stuttering, even if someone is receiving treatment, they are still living out there in society. Interacting with people in our daily lives is effectively a form of speech therapy.
From my 47 years involved in self-help groups, I have become convinced that it is not stuttering itself that causes people so much grief, but rather the continuous negative narrative about stuttering. This negative narrative affects their actions, thoughts and feelings. Transforming this negative narrative about stuttering into an affirmational narrative is an even more realistic and effective approach than speech therapy.
Until he was 52 years old, the world-famous musician Scatman John was full of negativity and agonised over his stuttering. However, when he then finally embraced it, his life was suddenly transformed, and he became an international star. Similarly, with the Academy Award-winning film The King’s Speech, according to David Seidler’s script, when the narrative shifted from the story of a pitiful, stammering king to that of a king who, despite his stammer, is sincere and feels a sense of responsibility to say what needs to be said, his speech announcing the outbreak of war is successful. These individuals’ narratives have had a great influence on people’s lives.
The narrative approach used in the realm of family therapy may prove to be an effective alternative to speech therapy. An important feature of self-help groups is group discussion. To make such discussion more effective, the narrative approach should be brought in as an approach to stuttering. In my address I shall report on how we are attempting to employ the narrative approach in such a way.
It is time for those who stutter to put an end to negative narratives about stuttering and instead affirm it. I believe a key mission for self-help groups is to collect and publicise such narratives in the wider society. Moreover, I think that the International Stuttering Association should take on the role of changing the dominant narrative in society that stuttering is something that needs to be ‘cured’.