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Professor Aims to Learn from People Who Stutter and Inspire Therapists

Jill Douglass delves into fluency disorders to teach future speech therapists

Professor Jill Douglass

By Kim Swartz

Jill Douglass, speech-language pathology (SLP) professor at Sacred Heart University, hopes to accomplish a number of things through her research and experience. Two of her major goals include guiding SLP students in conducting comprehensive and client-centered therapy for people who stutter and decreasing the impact stuttering has on individuals who stutter.

“I want to build a strong foundation for SLP students in their knowledge of stuttering and perception of people who stutter,” Douglass said one morning in her office at the Center for Healthcare Education. “I try my hardest to get students interested and excited in working with clients who stutter. I do this by building their empathy and compassion. One of my golden rules for students is to never ask your client to do something you aren’t willing to do yourself, such as using a therapy technique. If you expect your client to use a therapy technique while ordering their coffee, the SLP should understand first-hand what the experience is like. Once students appreciate the experience for themselves, they often shift their approach and expectations.”

Douglass, a New Orleans native who taught in New Zealand before coming to Sacred Heart four years ago, has dedicated the last decade to researching stuttering disorders and, more specifically, covert stuttering which is best described as individuals who try to be perceived as a non-stuttering person by hiding their stutter potentially at all costs. For example, they might avoid words, people, places, or even take on a different personality trait in order to hide their stutter. In some cases, even spouses of individuals who covertly stutter may have no concept of their spouses’ daily attempts at concealing it.

Douglass earned her bachelor’s degree from Louisiana State University and her master’s in speech-language pathology from University of Louisiana at Lafayette. When she decided to get her doctorate at Lafayette, she thought it would be in language and literacy. That changed when she was a master’s student and got more involved in the stuttering support group world. During that time, she had a client with a fluency disorder. “I kept hitting a brick wall with him,” Douglass said. She realized she wasn’t meeting the needs of the client, so she got involved in a local National Stuttering Association (NSA) support group. She wanted to learn from the raw experiences of people who stutter and understand more about their everyday successes, struggles and challenges. “I wanted to go beyond the textbook.”

Douglass regularly attended the support group meetings and soon became a chapter leader. After receiving her master’s degree, she attended the NSA’s annual conference in Atlanta and found herself surrounded by hundreds of people who stutter. “For the first time, I was in the minority as a fluent speaker.” Douglass said.

She said people at the conference asked her, “Why are you here if you don’t stutter?” and she explained to them that she was an SLP. Her response brought unexpected emotions to the surface as attendees reflected upon their SLP experiences, some of which were negative based on SLPs trying to assist the client in being totally fluent, which is typically an unobtainable goal after the age of seven. “They were still working on shaking the shame they felt as it was implicitly reiterated to them that stuttering was ‘bad’ and fluency was ‘good.’ I heard that story so many times – the message was confusing and it stuck with them. When a stutter is truly involuntary and a life-long reality, therapy should be about healthy management of the stutter. I thought, ‘I have to do something about this.’”

Since that conference, Douglass has shifted her doctoral focus. She believes she can make a positive mark on stuttering therapy by teaching students how to do good, client-centered work with people who stutter, ensuring that future SLPs view their clients with an abilities lens rather than a disabilities lens.

Additionally, her research and efforts to turn people’s experiences with stuttering into resources has not stopped. “I want to tell their stories and give them a platform to share their own journey. They deserve respect and their stories should be heard.”

At the conference, Douglass also became aware of covert stuttering. “I really started to understand what covert stuttering was and how it seems to be a product of shame and avoidance,” she said. She was intrigued by the conference participants referring to covert stuttering as being in the “closet” with stuttering. This “closet” concept and the stories that surround the covert stuttering journey have become the impetus for her research.

At this point, Douglass’s research is all qualitative. She believes qualitative understanding of covert stuttering is necessary because published research on the topic is sparse. The details and descriptions of her work are laying a foundation for continued research to build upon.

Douglass’s other goal of decreasing the impact stuttering has on a person is something she attempts by hosting workshops and support groups for children who stutter and their families.

As a way of building confidence and providing new speaking experiences, SHU is hosting the fourth annual Intensive Clinical Workshop for Children Who Stutter. The five-day workshop in August, created by Douglass and run with help from graduate SLP students, is for children ages nine and older. “Kids get to use their voice in extraordinary ways,” Douglass said. “It has been so thrilling for the participants because they get the chance to write, produce and record their own news broadcast. We utilize SHU’s amazing TV studio at the Martire Center. Whether they are telling their own stories on camera or providing support behind the scenes, it is fun to see the sense of accomplishment and pride in their faces.”

“The goal is to break down barriers before they’re up,” Douglass said. “We give them inspirational experiences, which hopefully they take with them. I dream of a day when stuttering is socially accepted and not discriminated against in the broadcast industry.” Children at the conference also will get to know other young people who stutter, develop communication skills, work on their personal speaking goals with a student therapist and much more.

In the fall, Douglass will start a monthly National Stuttering Association support group for children and families. For more information, contact Douglass at douglassj@sacredheart.edu.