Local father overcomes stutter with help of family, community and ‘Goodnight Moon’

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Brian Sellers, who spent most of his life challenged by stuttering, relishes his newfound ability to read bedtime stories to his children. (Courtesy Heather Sellers)
Brian Sellers, who spent most of his life challenged by stuttering, relishes his newfound ability to read bedtime stories to his children. (Courtesy Heather Sellers)

Four years ago, Brian Sellers couldn’t read “Goodnight Moon” to his two-year-old daughter. The harder he tried, the more he struggled. Finally, his daughter requested that her mother read to her at bedtime.

It was a difficult reality for Sellers. The rejection by his daughter wasn’t based on Sellers’ literacy — it was because Sellers had a severe stutter.

“Reading was always very challenging for me,” says Sellers, 40, of Williamsburg. “She became aware of my stutter.”

According to Sellers, his stutter developed right around the age of six. His classmates teased him and laughed at his stutter, making childhood challenging at times. The lack of acceptance he found with his peers aligns with findings in study on the social impact of stuttering on children conducted by researchers at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

They discovered that children who stutter were 82 percent more likely to be bullied than other children. The study also revealed that kids who struggle with stuttering are often ridiculed, marginalized or ostracized, which leads to low self-esteem, lack of confidence and depression. The researchers also found child stutterers tend to under-perform academically, have difficulty making friends, and feel alone and isolated.

Despite being picked on for his stutter, Sellers considers himself fortunate for having a supportive family to ensure that he didn’t experience many of the lows associated with stuttering.

Of the 70 million people who stutter in the United States, five percent are children. No one is sure how or why stuttering develops. Amanda Beavers, a speech therapist at Williamsburg Speech Specialists says that stuttering can be hereditary — with boys more likely than girls to become stutters.

“It starts with a disconnect between the brain and the articulators,” says Beavers. “Their ideas are forming so fast their articulators can’t keep up. So the signal from the brain to the mouth is overwhelming when they’re little.”

Beavers says that to a degree everyone stutters. The average person speaks seven stuttered words per 100 spoken. The person with a stuttering problem, one that involves intervention from a speech therapist, struggles to articulate 10 or more words in every 100. She says speech therapy helps, but stuttering isn’t curable. The key is to embrace it and focus on growing in fluency.

“The feelings about it get worse if you try to hide it, then your stuttering will be worse. They have to be forever aware,” says Beavers.

Growing up, Sellers saw a school-appointed speech pathologist for a 30-minute session weekly from elementary to high school. He says he was taught a number of techniques, but they were all ineffective for him.

Brian Sellers has stuttered nearly all of his life, but has worked to improve his fluency of speech. He hopes to become a source of support and to help other stutterers overcome their speech challenges. (Chris Jones/WYDaily)
Brian Sellers has stuttered nearly all of his life, but has worked to improve his fluency of speech. He hopes to become a source of support and to help other stutterers overcome their speech challenges. (Chris Jones/WYDaily)

During the summer between his freshman and sophomore years of high school, Sellers participated in a 40 hour per week, month-long intensive course for stuttering. While he gleaned a few techniques from the program, he noticed that it was focused on avoiding difficult sounds instead of encouraging participants to attack their speech problems. His fluency did improve, but since he failed to keep practicing what he had learned, his former speech pattern returned.

Unlike other stutterers he’s encountered, Sellers is an extrovert. While in graduate school at the University of Southern California, he decided that he wanted a leadership role within his Master of Business Administration program. This meant Sellers would have to deliver a speech. He took the challenge head-on and prepared a speech to deliver.

“I had to explain why I would be good to be a student leader of the MBA program,” he said. “So I’m there in this stadium-style room with 60 student and professors. I’m at the bottom looking up and it seems like it’s a hundred feet high. My hands are sweating and my heart is pounding and I know it’s not going to go well. I open my mouth to introduce myself and nothing comes out.”

“You hope that the floor swallows you up,” he added. 

Sellers delivered that same speech three more times in three days.

“I stumbled and stuttered through every other word,” he recalled. “It was supposed to take two minutes and it took eight or nine, and you know that you’re not speaking eloquent at all because it’s so choppy and there’s no inflection because you’re struggling to say the words. It sucks.” 

Sellers lost the election.

After completing graduate school, Sellers married and settled his family in Northern Virginia in 2014. He was running a small business and one day a prospective client called. The moment changed his life.

“She could tell I stuttered,” he said. “She said that she stuttered and had gone through the McGuire Programme and that and it was coming back to the D.C. area. I went and it’s been a life-changing experience.”

Dave McGuire, a lifelong stutterer, created the program after coming in contact with an opera singer while in Holland. She taught him operatic breathing techniques—known as costal breathing, also used in yoga—that involved controlling the diaphragm.

McGuire says he combined what he learned in traditional speech therapy with the instruction from the singer and saw an immediate impact in his speech. He began to teach it to others from his attic and before long, he was traveling the world demonstrating it. He’s helped Sellers and countless others regain their lives and confidence.

“We’ve suffered the humiliation, the trauma, and the self-hate of stuttering. I’ve stuttered pretty much all my life,” McGuire said. “I got beat up and teased. Human speech is your personality. Stuttering is a problem because you can’t let people know who you are.” 

For the stuttering adult, not being able to express who you are can come with consequences. In the same study by the University of Minnesota, Mankato, the report cited the economic impact on adults, revealing that 40 percent of adults have been denied a job or promotion because of their stuttering.

Licensed speech-language pathologist and trial lawyer William D. Parry, Esq., says on his website that early in his legal career, he was openly rejected by law firms “because of my stuttering, despite my academic qualifications.” It’s something Sellers sees happen in his own circles.

“I’ve seen on Facebook groups where people get depressed and feel hopeless. You apply for a job that may be a bit out of your comfort zone and if it doesn’t go well over and over and over, it can be demoralizing,” he said. 

Sellers counts himself lucky to possess a naturally strong level of self-confidence. It’s improved more since he committed to strengthening his communication skills. He credits embracing his stutter, non-avoidance techniques he learned in the program, and having contact with other stutterers for support and accountability to his growth.

“I hit all of my sounds assertively. I try to articulate every sound. I attack my stutter instead of hiding from it,” said Sellers. “I can take a thing that has been this horrible thing I’ve had all of my life and turn it on its head.”

Sellers hopes to create a support group to help other stutterers in Williamsburg, the same way that McGuire helped him. He wants to kill the myths associated with stuttering and remove the shame in order to help others speak with fluency and confidence.

“It’s not just trying to not stutter, but speak with good phrasing and pausing and formulate what you say before you say it. Speaking with music in your voice, to be animated and in control of your message,” he said.

And he’s back reading to his kids at night at their request, and they look forward to it.

“It’s the most incredible thing,” he said. “I’m reading with a lot of inflection. It’s heartwarming. As I went through the Programme, I wanted to have control over my speech because I wanted to show them what you can do with hard work.”