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‘How to stutter better’: IU speech therapist gives librarian strategies to manage speech disorder

When Jackie Fleming landed her dream job as visual literacy and resources librarian at Wells Library on the Indiana University Bloomington campus, she knew she needed help. Jackie Fleming. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University Jackie Fleming. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

A person with a lifelong stutter, she was nervous about how to handle her speech disorder as she stepped into both her new role and the classroom.

“When I started this job, my stutter increased because of my anxiety,” Fleming said. “I had speech therapy as a child, but here I am, fresh out of graduate school, and I’m faculty now. I’d only taught a few classes before this, and I really struggled talking in front of so many people. I thought, there has to be something I can do.”

She reached out to the Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences, part of the College of Arts and Sciences. That’s how she met clinical associate professor Julia Rademacher, whose approach to speech therapy changed everything about how Fleming thought about her stuttering.

“The first thing she told me is, ‘I’m not going to be able to stop the stuttering, but I’m going to teach you how to stutter better,’” Fleming said. “And that intrigued me. I’d never heard that before. I didn’t even know learning to live with it was a possibility. Even when it’s not explicitly said to you, you get the idea that stuttering is wrong.”

Rademacher, a classically trained lyric soprano opera singer who’s worked and taught at IU for more than two decades, said she wound up becoming a speech therapist after her college roommate had a hemorrhage in her vocal fold.

“I took her to her doctor’s appointments and listened to the speech therapist talk to her and thought, ‘I’m going to be the singing speech therapist who fixes singers’ voices!’” she said. “In 2010, a colleague retired, and I started working with clients who stutter. We know a lot about why people stutter, but that hasn’t led to a cure yet. So I tell everybody I work with that I’m here to help you manage the symptoms of your stutter and be more open about the fact you do stutter.”

Rademacher and Fleming met in person briefly, but then the COVID-19 pandemic struck. They continued to meet for therapy over Zoom, where Fleming said their work changed her perspective.

Julia Rademacher. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University Julia Rademacher. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University“Without having speaking strategies, your stutter controls you versus you putting it in its place,” she said.

Rademacher described it as “fight or flight mode,” where clients can practice strategies but often forget them entirely in real-life situations where they’re getting negative feedback or feel uncomfortable, afraid or anxious.

Rademacher offered an example of a client, who she tasked with a trip to Starbucks. “He was so terrified, and he stuttered terribly, but he did it. And the barista didn’t bat an eye. And he turned around and looked at me and said, ‘She didn’t even care!’”

Fleming said such fears are often rooted in a personal memory or former interaction, so overcoming that anxiety takes work. But understanding that she is in control, through her work with Rademacher, changed her perspective.

“My biggest success in speech therapy has been accepting that I stutter, and that it’s probably never going to go completely away,” she said. “And I’ve considered that, as part of my personal therapy, I’ve flipped the opportunity. It feels good to talk about my stutter in a way that is supportive and helps other people. It is part of who I am, but it doesn’t define me.”

Now, Fleming said, she generally includes a slide in any presentation she gives, disclosing that she stutters. “That lets them know I’m probably not going to be fluent and I will stutter during this talk, but to thank them for their patience and to feel free to ask questions.”

She’s also added information from the National Stuttering Association to her email signature, which she said has attracted positive comments from other librarians as she works through her daily tasks.

Rademacher said stuttering has had a larger platform nationally lately, thanks to the attention media outlets have given President Joe Biden’s stutter. More than 70 million people worldwide stutter, which is about one in every 100 people or 1 percent of the U.S. population.

“There are so many opportunities now for the stuttering community to have their voice be heard, and to be able to talk about the disorder and the myths around it,” she said. “Jackie brought an Atlantic article to me that included an interview with President Biden and told me, ‘I want to do this. I want to talk about stuttering.’”

Since then, Fleming has spoken to Rademacher’s graduate students. She’s even working on a book chapter about being a librarian who stutters.

“Jackie is my poster child for positive client outcomes,” Rademacher said. “She came to me in a state of readiness for change and is a wonderful example of what can come out of being willing to try something new or different, even if it’s a little scary sometimes.”

About the IU Speech-Language Clinic

The IU Speech-Language Clinic, in the new Health Sciences Building off the Indiana 45/46 Bypass, is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday during the semester. Anyone can receive services at the clinic, including a wide variety of evaluation and treatment options for multiple communication disorders, as well as support groups. To learn more, call 812-855-6251 or visit the clinic’s website.

Bethany Nolan is a senior communications specialist in the Office of the Vice President for Communications and Marketing.