Just when these three professionals felt most defeated by their own communication challenges, they rallied to conquer them—and to share what they'd learned with others facing the same sorts of challenges.
To get an up-close look at this unique population of communication sciences and disorders (CSD) professionals who understand their field with a particular intimacy, The ASHA Leader spoke with an audiologist with hearing loss and two speech-language pathologists, one who has a stutter and one who has a voice disorder.
All three of them were discouraged from pursuing CSD careers. All three persevered. And all three have never looked back.
Talking About and Facing His Stutter Helps an SLP Find His Calling
by Carol Polovoy
Peter Reitzes with his son, Sam, and wife, Lisa
As a senior at Sarah Lawrence College, Peter Reitzes was a disaster. He was exhausted and stressed. Stomach pains plagued him at all hours; sleep eluded him at night.
The symptoms were not caused by academic anxiety, extracurricular overload, or relationship difficulties—the typical college student concerns. He had, however, been keeping a secret for years—and the emotional and physical efforts were clearly taking their toll.
The secret? Reitzes stuttered. And he just couldn't hide it anymore. The strategies he used to appear fluent—switching words, remaining silent when he wanted to speak, and doing everything he could to avoid the possibility of his stuttering being heard—just weren't enough.
"I was no longer able to switch words or conceal my stutter," Reitzes said. "I started to have long blocks. People I had known for a long time heard me stutter for the first time, causing some very awkward moments."
Now a school-based speech-language pathologist in North Carolina, Reitzes remembers that time as a turning point in his life. "I was envisioning a life of not talking," he said. "I found myself looking for a job that didn't involve having to speak."
So Reitzes turned to speech-language treatment, and within three weeks, "It was like night and day," he said. "As soon as I started talking about my stutter, instead of avoiding it, I was a million times happier. My life opened up. By facing my stutter, I felt like I had a future. I don't ever remember feeling that way before."
As a child growing up in Wilmington, Delaware, Reitzes was identified by an SLP as "a stutterer who doesn't stutter" because of his successful avoidance techniques. His parents were advised not to talk about the stuttering, for fear of causing him embarrassment and shame.
In retrospect, Reitzes realizes that talking about stuttering was exactly what he needed, pointing to a similar childhood situation in which open discussion normalized a difference. Reitzes was the only Jewish student in his school. Every December, his mother would visit the school to teach about Chanukah. Everyone else celebrated Christmas, but "openly talking about being Jewish" diminished and normalized his religious difference.
In treatment, Reitzes said, "It was only when my SLP said, 'It's okay to let me hear you stutter,' and when he talked with a fake stutter, that I could let it [stuttering] out."
And that's when he decided to become an SLP. "I was working with a person who turned my life around," Reitzes said. "If someone could do something so great for me in such a short period of time, I wanted to give that to someone else."
He entered a speech-language pathology master's program. After his first year, however, the university placed an unexpected barrier in his path. Administrators knew from his application essay that Reitzes had a stutter, but told him he couldn't participate in the clinical program required for graduation unless he was stutter-free. Reitzes tried to resolve the issue in meetings with administrators, and then hired a lawyer. The university eventually dropped the fluency requirement and allowed Reitzes to complete the program.
One of the positive changes since his time at the school, Reitzes said, is that the university now has a leader in the stuttering community teaching its stuttering course.
After graduation, Reitzes worked in a New York public school for 10 years and built up a private practice focused on stuttering. He and his wife relocated to Chapel Hill last year with their young son; they expect a second child later this year.
His now-mild stutter has never been an issue with clients or parents. "Parents love that I stuttered as a child and continue to stutter," he said. "They like to have their child around successful people who stutter, because they serve as role models."
Reitzes remained a firm believer in the benefits of talking about stuttering and support groups for people who stutter and, in 2007, brought those elements to a broader population through StutterTalk, a weekly free audio podcast.
"We moved self-help to the digital world," he said. "I've hosted a new podcast every Sunday for five years." The podcasts are designed to support people who stutter and their families and to educate the public about it through open conversation.
The goal of StutterTalk, Reitzes said, parallels his personal goal of getting more people, including SLPs, talking about stuttering—because that's what helped him most.
"I learned to face my stuttering, to talk about stuttering, to stutter openly, to stutter on purpose," Reitzes said. Seeking fluency may be the goal for some people who stutter, but for Reitzes, "Chasing fluency just made me miserable and a poor communicator. Learning to stutter better—that is, avoiding avoidance—was what helped."
Contact Peter Reitzes, MA, CCC-SLP, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
They Told Him His Voice Wasn't Up To The Job And He Proved Them Wrong
by Bridget Murray Law
Stephen Sacks with his dog, Remy
He doesn't remember what the movie was called or even much of what was in it. But when Stephen Sacks told the professor who'd assigned it that it didn't capture the real experience of having a communication disorder, her temper flared.
"She told me I shouldn't even be in the communicative disorders department because I didn't have the voice of a professional SLP," he said.
It seemed that the very thing that had drawn Sacks to the field—his own battle with the voice disorder dysphonia—was now working against him in his speech-language pathology master's program.
Sacks had entered the program in 1976, inspired to provide the same sort of help to others that he'd received in that university's clinic. He'd been working as a sound engineer in a recording studio. And the year before, at age 25, he'd completely lost his voice from shouting over the blaring rock music. Over two semesters, students in the university's speech-language clinic helped him get it back.
"I realized this would be an interesting profession to pursue," Sacks said. "I figured I had a certain advantage in terms of empathy, as I knew what it was like to be on the receiving end of treatment, knew the pain of not being able to communicate like everybody else."
He started taking classes. Then he had the run-in with his professor, which sent him into a tailspin. Adding to his misgivings was a flare-up of his now officially diagnosed abductor spastic dysphonia, confirmation that his breathy voice was here to stay. On top of that he developed a dysfluency, struggling to articulate certain sound combinations, particularly voiceless plosives into vowels ("pick") or /h/ into vowels ("house").
"I started avoiding certain words and speaking situations and wondering how I would ever pass the final oral test," said Sacks. "I had doubts if I was making a wise decision about my life's profession or just wasting my time. I worried about getting hired or even making it through the job interview, which is anxiety-provoking under the best of circumstances."
Then, thanks largely to the encouragement of a different instructor in the program, Sacks recaptured his earlier motivation. He was also spurred on by the success of giants in the profession who'd also had communication disorders—Charles Van Riper and Wendell Johnson, both of whom stuttered. And then came a pivotal moment in a class with one of his favorite professors.
"I was really struggling to express myself, and I looked up at the professor who was a pretty straight-laced guy and he winked at me," said Sacks. "It was quite unexpected, and it was like he was saying, 'Hey, you're okay.' That really helped. I never did pass the oral speech test but it wasn't used against me."
Sacks graduated from the program and immediately went to work as an SLP in the schools in Central California, where he has been ever since. As he shifted his focus from himself to his students, his dysfluency mostly disappeared, and his voice problem was a "nonfactor." Students occasionally ask him about it, but he's not hard to hear in their one-on-one interactions with him.
What is a factor, Sacks said, is the large number of students who grapple with /r/ and /s/. He's devoted the past 20 years to developing the SATPAC (Systematic Articulation Training Program Accessing Computers) remediation technique, involving context building, co-articulation, normal rate and prosody, nonwords, and many correct repetitions per session. A computer program that administers the technique has been widely adopted in schools—work that led the American Speech-Language-Hearing Foundation to give Sacks its 2011 Van Hattum Award for outstanding contributions in the school setting.
Sacks knew he'd made the right career choice, despite his earlier uncertainty, and now his field was acknowledging the same. And he says he'd advise a speech-language student with the same voice disorder to persevere, as he and the other SLPs who motivated him did.
"Certainly, it's more difficult having a voice and fluency problem, but the bigger issue is how motivated the student is to help others. Because that's what it's all about," said Sacks. "Parents who bring me their preschoolers don't care that my voice sounds breathy. They are just happy when their children communicate better."
Contact Stephen Sacks, MA, CCC-SLP, at email@example.com.
An Audiologist's Hearing Loss is Her Students' Gain
by Matthew Cutter
Stephanie Sjoblad (right) and her dog, Lulu, with
University of North Carolina AuD students (from left)
Samantha McKinney, Dannielle Verril, and Kate
Kawola, all of whom have congenital hearing loss
Stephanie Sjoblad's new service dog, Lulu, always goes with her to the hearing clinic. Although Sjoblad was diagnosed with a moderate hearing loss at age 5, Lulu doesn't go to the clinic to work as a service dog—she goes there to learn. "If Lulu's home all day alone she won't know what to do for me when we're home in the evenings," Sjoblad said. "That's when I really need her—for safety around the home. Hearing a smoke detector at night when my cochlear implant comes off, or hearing my boys if they call—especially if my husband is not there. And if I am at the clinic late at night, she would be here to alert me if someone came in."
In her 10 years as director of the UNC Hearing and Communication Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Sjoblad has been known to work a late night or two. She describes herself as driven and hasn't allowed her hearing loss to hinder a successful career in audiology.
"It's not so much about my hearing loss," she said. "My personality is very much that I want to believe I'm capable of doing things, so I try my hardest at everything I do. If someone told me I couldn't do something, I became more determined to prove that I could."
Thus, when Sjoblad was 21, her audiologist provided the perfect inspiration for a career in audiology—discouragement. As Sjoblad explored ways to gain technical knowledge for a job in the hearing aid industry, her audiologist tried to dissuade her from a master's program in audiology, saying she probably couldn't complete the clinical requirements. "And I believed it," Sjoblad said, "for a time."
Working at unfulfilling jobs, Sjoblad made her own accommodations in a world that often provided none. "I would trade duties: Someone would answer phones or do some phone calls for me, and I would help them with their typing or filing because I was really skilled in those areas," she said. "I found unique ways to get things done by being creative and respectful of other people as well—not blaming them for things I couldn't handle."
In 1994, Sjoblad applied to the master's program in audiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She shared her vision and resume with program director Jack Roush and received an unexpected response—encouragement. With the aid of an FM system, she earned her audiology degree. Now she is involved with clinical training for students beginning their own careers in audiology, some of them with hearing loss, at the UNC Hearing and Communication Center.
Sjoblad believes that, for audiology students, hearing loss is not merely a surmountable obstacle. "I think we have advantages," she said. "Our fourth-year student Kate [has] such a gift when she's working with patients, because as soon as they discover that she has hearing loss, they just bond with her. Everything she may have been trying to tell them now has more value. Because she's not just a student—she's someone who understands how they feel and what they're living with every day. That's a unique trait to have."
Still, Sjoblad adds, "it's important for audiologists to recognize that each person with hearing loss is an individual whose life will be uniquely affected by hearing loss."
Student Kate Kawola agrees, saying, "I think I have insights that allow me to be empathetic with patients." And Kawola is grateful for the mentoring from Sjoblad. "She's a great example of how to overcome challenges—not just for me, but for my normal-hearing peers," she said.
That's exactly the sort of can-do attitude Sjoblad means to pass on. "If there are problems they're encountering, I want to help them solve those issues, and always tell them anything's possible—not that there are limitations because of their inability to hear something," Sjoblad said. "There's a unique gift that people with hearing loss can bring to the field, so we want to encourage them."
Contact Stephanie J. Sjoblad, AuD, CCC-A, at firstname.lastname@example.org.