IF critics are to be believed, this week sees the release in UK cinemas of what is set to be one of the standout films of 2011.

The King’s Speech, starring Colin Firth, tells the story of how King George VI, looking to inspire his people as they faced war with Hitler, fought to overcome the stammer which had afflicted him since boyhood.

Speaking of his role to the British Stammering Association (BSA), Firth said that since he became involved with the film he was surprised by how many people had revealed to him that they, or someone they knew, had speech impairment.

“I’m very well aware that not many films have addressed this issue except to make a mockery of it or to use it for comedy,” he said.

Indeed many are now hoping that with the release of the critically acclaimed film will come a greater public acceptance and understanding of a condition which is often seen as a source of amusement but can lead to a life of frustration and misery for sufferers.

Firth said: “People appreciate the problem of blindness and deafness but not being able to speak properly to people, in the way they expect, I think it’s underestimated - the psychological damage it does.”

A recent study carried out on behalf of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT), found that effective speech therapy can save the NHS £765 million each year in follow-on treatments for those with speech or swallowing defects.

The findings, which coincide with the launch of the RCSLT’s Giving Voice awareness campaign, highlight how speech and language therapy offers significant cost savings to the NHS and wider government, by avoiding other clinical interventions and improving life prospects.

Haxby-based speech therapist Lucy Lowson works with those who have had problems since childhood or may have developed a problem through illness or injury.

She described what a stammer can do to a person’s confidence and how she wants to bring help to adults with communication difficulties, through a new group in York.

“There are two types of stammer,” she said. “An acquired stammer, for example through a brain injury or stroke, and a developmental stammer where we know there’s a genetic component. They can be triggered in a child’s life but it is currently believed there has to be a genetic component.

“From a therapy point of view, if people have had a stammer from being a child it can affect their confidence. They may hate job interviews or public situations. Later they might not even want to go to the pub or to a post office to buy stamps.

“Those are situations we take for granted but when a person who stammers talks there’s always a level of anticipation for them before they do.

“Some people battle and battle against it but others can become completely withdrawn.”

Lucy said some people who stammer have become so adept at hiding their impairment that it would be difficult for a casual acquaintance to notice a problem. But for the person struggling to hold a normal conversation, Lucy said the effort can be “emotionally and physically demanding.”

“They constantly have to plan and think about what they are going to say,” she said. “You can see in a person with a stammer that it’s a constant battle for them.”

As for a cure, Lucy said the road can be long and hard for those who seek help.

“The therapy requires a very high level of motivation on the part of the person with speech difficulties – it’s not a magic wand. You gear the therapy around an individual’s needs.

“The focus is on the person, not on the stammer itself. It’s to realise that it’s one of only many parts of them – it’s not who they are.”

Lucy, who has been a therapist for five years, believes services for adults with communication difficulties in York could be improved. She is now looking to hear from people in and around the city who struggle with their speech, with a view to setting up a group, though has left the decision on the nature of the group up to future members.

Looking forward to the release of The King’s Speech on Friday, Lucy said she hoped it would go some way to changing attitudes.

“I hope it will prove an opportunity to show that people of all ages and cultures can struggle with a stammer, and help other to be more understanding.”

If you would like more information, you can contact Lucy at contact@therapyfor.co.uk or phone 07764 999 873.

For more information on the RCSLT Giving Voice campaign, visit givingvoiceuk.org

‘I thank God it is only a stammer’

WE spoke to John, who asked us not to use his real name, but told how he has coped with speech difficulties since he was at least eight, some 25 years ago. He is now 34, married and works in York as an engineer. He said he had no idea why he began to stammer.

“My earliest memory of stammering goes back to my primary school days, I was eight or nine-years-old.

“On one occasion I had no choice but to sum up the courage and ask my English teacher how to spell a word and, after joining a queue, I counted down as every other pupil successfully went up to her and asked ‘how do I spell blah blah?’. Finally it was my turn, and the question was asked. I paused for about five seconds or so, took five very deep breaths but I just couldn’t say the words ‘how do I spell?’ but surprisingly found it easier to say ‘I can’t remember the word.’ “I have thought about stammering ever since, and how easier it is to avoid certain situations. However over the years, I have experimented with different ways of attacking my fears, from hand gestures, to key words, to even restricting myself to having all red meat meals for a week or so. I have tried everything.

“The first time I tried therapy, I really didn’t know what to expect, only that I was finally going to meet someone that understood my problem and from a professional and academic perspective. “The one thing that I did expect of myself during our session (which was absolutely relaxing, and very professional), was that I shouldn’t have had anything to fear, hence I didn’t expect to stammer. However I did.

“Although I was unable to complete my therapy due to a job redundancy and financial reasons, the few sessions I had made me realise that it was only a stammer and that saying: ‘What’s the worst that can happen if you stammer your words out?’ – nothing.

“But one feels like a second-class citizen. I have a lot to share but many times find it difficult to share my thoughts and feelings due to stigma. Sometimes I get angry with the rest of society as it almost feels like society expects everyone to be able to perform 110 per cent. I find comfort in my heart when I thank God that it is only a stammer and not something worse.”