With a charming Irish accent and twinkling blue eyes, Maria McGrath speaks distinctly, but I would never have known she was a stutterer if that had not been the topic of our conversation.
After a childhood marked by stammering, McGrath is no longer at a loss for words, thanks in large part to hard work and a series of practices that encompass the “Beyond Stammering” McGuire Program, which is designed to assist people like her.
“Speak slowly and carry a big toolbox of techniques” could be the slogan for this multipronged approach, which works to help free people from stuttering and stammering. McGrath’s husband, Dave McGuire, founded the program in Holland more than 20 years ago and it now boasts satellites in Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, Scandinavia, South Africa and the United Kingdom, where thousands of people have benefited from the practical training and supportive approach.
With a huge boost in awareness from the Oscar-nominated film The King’s Speech, (the story of Britain’s King George VI, his ascension to the throne and the speech therapist who helped him), coupled with McGrath and McGuire’s marriage at 10 a.m. on 10.10.10 at the Santa Barbara Mission, she is now working from their home base in Santa Barbara to expand the program in the United States and help others the way she was helped many years ago.
“I always went to speech therapy as a child,” said McGrath, who grew up in Ireland. “But they had to take you out of class. Everyone knew what you were doing, but you didn’t talk about it and that just made you feel more left out. So it never really helped.”
Speech problems had an impact on much of her life. For example, as a child she was a very good golfer, but would purposely lose tournaments so she wouldn’t have to make an acceptance speech afterward. Now she golfs as often as she can and has taken up tennis as well, with few worries about the social aspects of both sports.
An accountant by trade, after college McGrath left Ireland and moved to England, where she tried several speech therapy courses that were ultimately ineffective.
“It would help for a week or two and then I would go back and I’d feel let down and think, ‘Oh, God, this is not going to work again,’” she said.
The first time she tried the McGuire Program it didn’t entirely stick either.
“I didn’t apply myself to it how I ought to have,” McGrath admitted.
But after a short period of time she went back again and really committed to it.
“It’s hard work, both during the program (which can vary in length from days to weeks) and also afterward. It’s not a cure — you have to continue to work on it,” McGrath is quick to point out.
The Beyond Stammering program encourages graduates to return and help others, which in turn helps them work on their skills.
“There’s a massive support group out there, which is one of the keys,” McGrath said. “You can call up people anytime.”
McGrath says she is frequently on Skype with fellow students from around the world. They call on each other if they are having problems or want to practice to prepare for an interview or some other kind of stressful speaking situation.
But even the most common everyday situations — like ordering coffee or going to the post office — can be very stressful for stutterers, especially if there’s a line of people waiting behind them, she says.
“It can really be quite awful,” she said.
McGrath offers some tips for people who suffer from stammering:
» “Learn to costal breathe, that helps. If you breathe like you’re taking a yawn, you can feel the difference and your ribs expand totally. That’s one of the key things that we teach, retraining how you breathe so you take a full costal breath and then speak right away.”
» “Speaking to other people who stutter always helps. There’s a lot of support out there, there are a lot of other programs out there. Not one program is for everyone.”
» McGrath’s book, Beyond Stammering: The McGuire Programme for Getting Good at the Sport of Speaking, offers “a pretty good introduction to it if you’re not ready to come to the course.”
She also offers some tips for conversing with someone who is stammering:
» When someone is stammering, other people think they know what they are going to say and they want to help them. “Ask the person if they would like help. I know for me when I was chronically stuck on a word and the other person knew what I was trying to say, it would help me if they would help me out with the word, it would help me move past that. However, a lot of people are not interested in having the other people help them out. Perhaps the best thing to do is ask the person, ‘Would you like me to help you?’ as opposed to just automatically coming up with the word that you think they are going to say, because it might not be what they want to say at al!”
» “Take your time and don’t rush them.”
» “Look them in the eye, because when you have a stammer you automatically look away because of all the shame and the fear because you think you are making the other person uncomfortable. The part that you see coming out is only a tiny little tip of the iceberg and there’s a lot of stuff happening underneath and people don’t know about all the shame and the guilt that you’re taking up this person’s time and the other person feels uncomfortable.”
One of the things the course teaches is to stammer on purpose.
“When you stammer on purpose to reduce the fear ... then you are not scared of it,” McGrath explained.
“In the long term, we want people to become eloquent speakers but there are lots of steps you have to take in order to get there,” she said.
One such step is speaking in public.
“Having to speak publicly is one of the No. 1 things that people hate,” McGrath said. Yet a lot of people in the McGuire Program go on to Toastmasters training and “become very eloquent speakers through that as well.”
McGrath laughed as she said, “We encourage you to step out of your comfort zone and do lots of things — like having this interview would have been a nightmare. I would never do it years ago.”
The attention given to The King’s Speech is really wonderful, she continued.
“The movie kind of establishes two aspects: the history of it and also opening up to the public the issue of stuttering,” she said. “I think it’s really great for people who stammer because a lot of people don’t understand the emotions behind it.
“This may well open people’s minds about that and make it easier to talk about. It won’t be the elephant that’s under the table or whatever the expression is, it will out there in the open.”