Speaking out about stammering

Derry teenager Rebecca Quinn has suffered with a stammer for most of her life. In June, with the support of her parents, she took an intensive three day course which she says has now changed her life...

Rebecca Quinn & Joe O Donnell in the Derry Journal Newspaper Office, Derry, Northern Ireland

She’s only sixteen, but Rebecca Quinn has the maturity of someone far beyond her years.

She has the same priorities and concerns as any other teenage girl. She loves shopping, spending time with her friends, and is anxiously awaiting her GCSE results which she’ll get next week.

“I’m nervous to see how I’ll get on,” smiles Rebecca.

When it comes to facing nerve wracking situations head on, Rebecca has more practice than most.

Since the age of four, she had to cope with having a stammer - or stutter. Rebecca spent her most of her childhood and her early teenage years trying to avoid situations which would make her stammer more obvious.

In recent years, Rebecca admits that the stammer dictated most of what she did - and didn’t do in her 
everyday life.

However in June, with the help and support of her parents, she travelled to Galway and undertook an intensive three day course called the McGuire programme. Since then, she says, life has changed dramatically.

“Up until I did the course, I had no confidence at all,” says Rebecca, employing a careful breathing technique 
while she speaks.

“I was in p7 when someone first made fun of my stammer, but I realise that it happened because they didn’t understand. Since then, though, it was something I was really embarrassed about. I’d had speech therapy but I just found there was a lot of different advice and people telling me different things and in the end it made me more nervous and I just kept trying 
to cover it up.”

Joe O’Donnell, Director of the McGuire programme which Rebecca undertook, says most people with stammers spend all of their time trying to hide it, which in turn, he says, makes it worse.

“Someone with a stammer will constantly be scanning ahead and looking for different words and wondering if they’ll get stuck on certain words. With that, it’s a matter of avoidance too and when you combine all of those things it’s a huge challenge for someone to meet in their everyday life.”

For Rebecca, the challenges were everywhere.

“I wouldn’t ring a taxi, or ring to order food. I’d just rely on an app or do it online. If I was shopping and I wanted to ask about a size for something I’d ask a friend to ask for me. And if I didn’t have anyone with me, I just wouldn’t ask,”

The stammer had an impact in other areas of life too, says Rebecca.

“At school, the teachers wouldn’t ask me to read out because they knew and I suppose they knew I’d be embarrassed. When I went to the careers advisor, I never said what I wanted to do because I couldn’t actually ‘say’ it. Instead, I said things that were easy to say.

“What I really want to be is a criminal psychologist,” she says, smiling.

Rebecca agrees that being a teenager brings enough challenges of its own, and that the stammer was increasingly impacting on her life. Reaction from her peers, she says, was mixed.

“Some girls were hateful and others were really nice. It was hard at times and I found myself just trying to cover it up again and again.”

Rebecca had heard about the innovative McGuire programme where all the staff have themselves been through the emotional trauma of stuttering.

“We also know from personal experience what steps, physically and mentally, are needed for major long term improvement,” says Joe O’Donnell.

Rebecca doesn’t doubt that the McGuire programme has led to major improvement for her.

“It’s totally changed my life,” she says.

So extreme was the change, that at the end of the three day intensive programme, Rebecca was able to stand on a soap box in Galway city centre and address members of the public.

“I never thought in a million years I’d be able to do something like that,” she says.

“On the first day of the course I had to go in and speak to a camera in front of a group. I was really nervous but I’m so glad I did it now. All the new students sit at the front and we were given what we’d be doing over that next few days.”

As the course got underway, Rebecca says she couldn’t believe how different she 
began to feel.

“I started using the new breathing techniques and it was something completely different for me and gradually it just became easier to say what I wanted to. On the last day we went out on contacts and disclosures. We had to walk up to complete strangers and ask for directions and introduce ourselves. Again, that’s something I would never have done.

“The reaction from the people we spoke to was great. People were so positive towards us and it really improved my confidence.”

Rebecca completed the programme in June, and after coming back to Derry met up with family and friends.

“I was really tired after finishing the programme because it is pretty intensive, but people who I knew couldn’t believe the difference in me when I came home. They were really shocked and couldn’t believe the difference in me in such a short space of time.”

Since June, Rebecca has availed of the numerous follow up elements of the course. She has been assigned a personal, certified coach. She followed a structured plan for the first six weeks after the course and has full access to a telephone support network as well as online support network.

“It doesn’t stop when you finish the intensive course,” says Joe.

“It’s important for us to emphasise that there isn’t a cure for stammering. We teach techniques to help people manage the stutter but it’s something which requires work every day to maintain it. It’s like training at a sport. You have to keep doing it 
- everyday.”

Rebecca says she intends to keep up the techniques she’s learned every day 
from now on.

“I’m not letting this go. It’s too big a change in my life,” 
she says.

And with that, her first ever newspaper interview 
is over.

“That was ok,” says Rebecca, relieved and smiling, she adds “I never thought in a million years I’d be able to do something like this. I would recommend the McGuire programme to everybody who struggles with a stammer.”

The next McGuire programme intensive course takes place in Belfast from Wednesday October 22 to Saturday October 25. The cost of the course is 1200 euro. Those who decide on the second day that the course is not for them are under no obligation to pay. For more information contact Joe O’Donnell on 0035374 91 25781 or email joe@mcguireprogramme.com