'The King's Speech' Sheds Light on Stuttering, but Not Its Cost

Colin firth - The King's SpeechThe King's Speech, which tells the tale of how King George VI overcame his stammer to deliver a moving speech to his countrymen as they fought the Nazis in World War II, is considered a front-runner to win the Oscar for Best Picture next weekend. For people with speech problems today, however, the battle to get treatment continues.

Getting health insurers to cover the costs of speech therapy can be difficult, which presents a big problem for the 3 million Americans who stutter. The Stuttering Foundation estimates that 5% of all children go through a stuttering phase that lasts for six months or longer, although most are able to recover. About 1% have a longer-term problem that lingers to adulthood like King George VI"It's very difficult because health insurance plans say that many types of pediatric speech and language disorders are developmental and that they should be addressed in the schools regardless of the severity of the disorder," says Kimberly O'Sullivan, spokeswoman for the American Speech-Language Hearing Association, in an email. "The health plans may say that they only cover conditions that are due to an accident or illness."

Parents may have to pay out of pocket for therapy if they are dissatisfied with the services being provided them by their school district, which often occurs because therapists are able to obtain their licenses without having specialized training in stuttering, according to June Fraser, the Stuttering Foundation of America's executive director. She adds that this is critical because the earlier a child begins therapy, the greater their chances are for successfully overcoming the disorder. Finding someone experienced in treating stuttering can also be difficult.

Further complicating matters are the fiscal pressures that school districts are under these days. Speech therapists -- technically speech language pathologists -- are being asked to shoulder increased caseloads and in some districts speech language pathologist assistants are being asked to provide more services, according to O'Sullivan.

Sometimes, parents might have trouble even getting services, she says. Moreover, many speech therapists lack experience in treating stuttering because it's not common. The Stuttering Foundation even has a section on its website on how to deal with insurance companies.

Though King George VI was never cured, scientists today have a much better understanding of the causes of the disability. Earlier this month, scientists announced that they had identified a set of genes that appears to raise the risk of developing stuttering. The ramifications are huge.

"Confirming the link would open up the possibility of developing pharmacological treatments for stuttering that would synthetically replace enzyme deficiencies that arise from the gene mutation," according to the Times of London.

Many people who stutter have become successful communicators, including Vice President Joe Biden, actor James Earl Jones and John Stossel of Fox Business Network. Alas, a cure for the disorder remains as elusive for today's stutterers as it was for King George VI. Winston Churchill even ordered the BBC to hide the King's affliction, according to the Daily Mail.

For years, stutterers (those without highly-placed handlers) would avoid speaking situations or substitute words to mask their condition with varying degrees of success. "Some days I stutter," says Jim McClure, a stutterer and the spokesman for the National Stuttering Association, in an interview. "Some days I don't."

McClure says "after years of cleverly substituting words, I didn't need a thesaurus." Not surprisingly, he is a big fan of The King's Speech.

"That's been a terrific shot in the arm for us," he says. "[It] is the movie that we have seen that shows how difficult it is for a person who stutters."
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