Movie Brings Attention to Speech Device

By Kim Grizzard
The Daily Reflector

March 28, 2011 – In 2003, Queen of Talk Oprah Winfrey gave a royal public relations boost to a speech aid developed by East Carolina University researchers. Nearly a decade later, the film “The King’s Speech” has again helped create a platform for the device.

As the box office figures for the movie have increased, so has public interest in Janus Development Group, a Greenville-based corporation established to coordinate the development and sales of the SpeechEasy.

“Our web traffic has increased significantly as well as the daily inquiries that we get from people going to the website and requesting more information,” Janus President Alan Newton said. “It (the movie) has certainly raised awareness overall of stuttering.”

“The King’s Speech,” winner of four Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actor, stars Colin Firth as Britain’s King George VI, whose heritage makes his struggle with stammering nearly unbearable.

Joya Cogdill understands that feeling. The Buies Creek native began stuttering in early childhood in a home where everyone else seemed to be the epitome of eloquence.

“It was just hard for me as a child because my father is a preacher, and my mom was a teacher, and my brother was a lawyer,” Cogdill, 31, said. “Then I come along, and I don’t want to talk.”

The Stuttering Foundation of America estimates that about 5 percent of children will experience a period of stuttering that lasts six months or more, but 75 percent of those will recover by late childhood.

Cogdill was among the 1 percent — more than 3 million Americans — to have a long-term problem with stuttering.

While she participated in once-a-week speech therapy in school until sixth grade, Cogdill struggled with assignments such as oral reports, and she hated being called on to read aloud in class.

“I remember when I was a kid, I never understood why when we had to read in unison at my church I never had trouble,” she said. “I never knew why.”

She did not learn the answer until 2003, when her mother called to tell her about a stuttering device she had seen featured on “Oprah.” The SpeechEasy simulates the so-called “choral effect,” which describes how stuttering is significantly reduced or even eliminated when a person who stutters speaks in unison with others.

The device, worn like a hearing aid, uses altered auditory feedback technology to recreate the effect. When SpeechEasy users speak, the device replays their words into their ear with a slight delay and at a modified frequency, as though they are speaking along with someone else.

For some, the results are instantaneous. Cogdill, who has used a SpeechEasy device since 2004, remembers the first time she tried it.

“I remember (the speech therapist) had me read something, and she recorded my errors,” she said. “I had 96 errors or hesitations (before). Then she put the SpeechEasy in my ear, and I read the exact same essay, and my errors were like five on the whole page. I sat there and cried.”

Amber Snyder, Janus clinical services manager, said tears are not uncommon.

“I have some clients that we have the box of tissue sitting right there because they start crying, parents start crying, I start crying,” she said. “I’ve seen clients who are 40 years old who say ‘I’m the only person I’ve ever met who stuttered’ and they didn’t think there was anything else out there. There’s certainly relief.”

While SpeechEasy has been shown to reduce stuttering, it is not promoted as a cure. Newton said Janus avoids touting SpeechEasy as a “medical miracle,” terminology used to describe the device on “Oprah.”

“That disenfranchised a lot of speech pathologists,” he said. “Those were not our words; those were her words. They thought that it came from us, so we had to do a little bit of damage control afterward within the profession.

“SpeechEasy is not just a stand-alone product but part of an overall treatment.”

Stuttering is considered a communication disorder and is not classified as a medical condition. Speech-Easy is not typically viewed by insurance companies as a medical product, meaning most will not cover the $4,000-$5,000 expense to purchase one. In some cases, Newton said, Vocational Rehabilitation Services funding may be available for people who can demonstrate that they could gain better employment through use of a fluency device.

It took Matthew Roberts more than two years to convince the government that he needed a Speech-Easy to help fulfill his duties as a corporal in the Marine Corps.

Roberts has not had a life-long battle with stuttering. Though he experienced some stuttering in childhood, the problem did not recur until 2008, when he suffered a traumatic brain injury in an explosion in Iraq. He tried speech therapy, cognitive therapy and even hyperbaric oxygen treatment before being fitted for a SpeechEasy in December. He wears the device daily and makes the trip from Camp Lejeune to Greenville for speech therapy twice a week.

“I’m 25 years old, and this (stuttering) is new to me,” Roberts said. “It was driving me crazy, so this is like a real big deal to me. … It’s helped me a lot.”

Cogdill said SpeechEasy has helped her realize her calling as an elementary school teacher. While she already had completed her undergraduate degree before she began using the device, Cogdill’s stuttering made interviews difficult, leaving her unable to find work in her major. She took temporary jobs but struggled with tasks such as answering the phone.

In 2005, she returned to her alma mater, Campbell University, to pursue her teacher certification. She went on to be named “First Year Teacher of the Year” at McGee’s Crossroads Elementary in Johnston County, where she teaches first grade.

“Sometimes I am amazed that my worst fear in life is now what I do all day every day, which is public speaking,” Cogdill said. “Somehow or another it’s become not easy and not flawless, but it’s become easier.”

King George VI found success as well, even 60 years before altered auditory feedback technology was developed. Gary Hassell, national sales manager for Janus, believes the “The King’s Speech” is inspirational to people who are hoping to find help for their stuttering.

“It actually creates awareness,” Hassell said. “Really, we haven’t had anything like that for stuttering. It just makes them start searching. When they search they will find lots of options.

“We think it’s a big deal,” he said, “especially for something that was developed right here in Greenville.”

Contact Kim Grizzard at kgrizzard@reflector.com or (252) 329-9578.