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Colin Firth as King George VI and Helena Bonham Carter as the Queen Mother in Tom Hooper's film THE KING'S SPEECH.

"The King's Speech" earned 12 Academy Award nominations for excellence last week from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Critics most knowledgeable about the repercussions of stuttering are also endorsing the film.

Chattanooga speech therapists and people who cope with stuttering in daily conversation are praising the movie for raising awareness and for the spotlight it has put on speech therapy.

"The movie is an accurate portrayal of the challenges of a stutterer," said Carla Wiksell, senior speech pathologist at the Speech and Hearing Center.

"It lets people know that stuttering is strictly a difficulty in speaking, not with a person's intelligence or their ability to do a job," she said.

"The movie really highlights the emotional challenges there are for a person with dysfluency," said Gayle Tucker, speech language pathologist with Siskin Rehabilitation Hospital.

Dysfluency and stammering are other terms synonymous with stuttering.

Jane Fraser, president of the national nonprofit Stuttering Foundation, credits "The King's Speech" with accomplishing more in two hours than she said her nonprofit has achieved in more than six decades.

"'The King's Speech" has brought overwhelmingly positive attention to the plight of people who stutter," Fraser said in a news release.

"For the stuttering community, there are few, if any, more accurate portrayals of the anguish faced by people who stutter or the hardship it places on family and friends," she said.

The film tells the story of King George VI (played by Colin Firth) who reluctantly assumes the throne of England after his brother abdicates. His stammering makes him an unlikely leader.

With his country on the brink of war, his wife (Helena Bonham Carter) arranges for him to work with an eccentric speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Logue helps the king find his voice, enabling him to give a radio address uniting his country in war.

"The movie was technically extraordinary, as well as having a wonderful cast," said Katie Schwartz of Business Speech Improvement. "Hopefully, this movie will sensitize viewers to the constant courage shown by stutterers as they continue to talk, as well as the fact therapy can help many."

THERAPY THEN AND NOW

George VI (1895-1952) lived decades too early to benefit from therapy devices such as the Speecheasy, an electronic enhancing device worn in a stutterer's ear, which is used by therapists today.

Famous Stutterers

* Winston Churchill

* James Earl Jones

* Carly Simon

* John Stossel

* Tiger Woods

* Mel Tillis

* Jimmy Stewart

* Marilyn Monroe

* Emily Blunt

* Vice President Joe Biden

Source: Stuttering Foundation

However, Wiksell and Tucker said several of the techniques incorporated in Rush's role are still addressed in therapy.

"Breathing techniques, cutting the king's speech into phrases so he knew how many words to put in a breath, working on the fear of speaking situations are all techniques used in helping people," Wiksell said.

"He worked on relaxation, controlling the breath and trying to get the king used to being in a situation where he had to communicate," adds Tucker. "Some of the other things (Rush) did were maybe just for entertainment value."

Wiksell said therapists encourage their clients to speak in daily situations outside the classroom -- answering a phone, ordering in a drive-through. These everyday chores are bigger challenges for an individual who has trouble pronouncing hard consonants or who speaks haltingly because he is always assessing how he'll pronounce his next word.

Steve Roberson, industrial services manager at the Speech and Hearing Center, is one of about 3 million Americans who stutter.

The 49-year-old said his dysfluency began at age 6, a result of a hearing blockage that required corrective surgery.

With several years of therapy, and daily diligence even now in managing his word choices, he is able to teach a Sunday school class and his stuttering is minimal.

"Therapy taught me to slow down, think about my words, know that there are certain words that will always lead to speech blocks, so not to let anxiety force me to put words out," he said.

Roberson said that as he talks, he is not only thinking about the pronunciation of the word he's saying but what word he'll say next.

"I've learned to break words down in my head and think about my conversation, plus how the words will come out. There are certain words I know will lead to speech blocks, such as words that start with H," he said.

He said that in grade school, his stuttering "led to fights on a regular basis." As an adult, he finds those who know him are patient and look beyond the stammer.

"Those who don't know me, you can read in their eyes and tell they are struggling to understand, which may lead me to stutter more. It's a fact that when you are stressed, tired or any type of high emotional level you stutter more."

RIGHT VS. LEFT-HANDEDNESS

In the film, Rush questions Firth as to whether he was previously left-handed and forced to change to right-handedness, which Firth confirms.

"The therapist thought that might have contributed to his stuttering," said Tucker, who said she disagrees with that assessment. "I think most theories now say it's a neurological glitch."

"I know it's always been an old wives' tale to have a person who stutters change to right-handed," said Wiksell. "I don't believe that is a cause for stuttering."

The Stuttering Foundation issued a report that said hand preference has not been extensively studied "despite this long-standing hypothesis that stuttering may be associated with cerebral laterality."

However, the foundation did distribute a questionnaire in 2003 to stutterers, which found that 90 percent of the participants were right-handed.

Despite the movie therapist's questionable diagnosis, the local therapists praised the film for its compassion shown stutterers and its potential to broaden an uninformed public's knowledge.

"It's a good movie, good entertainment and people are definitely going to be drawn to it," said Wiksell. "I hope it opens conversation between people who stutter and those who don't."

Tucker said even moviegoers not interested in speech therapy will find the king to be a sympathetic character.

"I think most people will see (Firth) in a favorable light. And that's one thing I thought was good about the movie, not only for people who have stuttering problems but people with all kinds of communication impairments."

Contact Susan Pierce at spierce@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6284.

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