An educator told Michele Delo in fourth grade that she should try to talk more slowly because of her stutter. Delo became a very good listener, instead.
“I became a covert stutterer,” the Town of Tonawanda native said.
Delo avoided reading and making presentations in class. She passed on after-school clubs and sports. She got fast-food jobs in high school and afterward, doing work that required limited conversation.
Things changed during her junior year in college.
“I began openly telling my employers that I do have a stutter,” she said. “I might wait until after I'm hired to tell them. I don't want a place or person to judge me on how I talk because that is not the only quality I have.”
Delo, 29, graduates this weekend with a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and dietetics from SUNY Buffalo State, then will continue work at the school to become a registered dietitian. She hopes to one day land a job in the health field.
She also has become co-leader of the Buffalo chapter of the National Stuttering Association, which hosts monthly support meetings. The next one, at 6 p.m. Monday, will take place in Room 172 of the Buffalo State Science and Mathematics Complex. For more info, email email@example.com.
“Before I came to Buff State, I did not openly talk about stuttering with my friends or relatives,” Delo said, “so it was kind of like I was living two lives. Now I'm living one, so I’m very happy.”
Delo is among about 3 million Americans diagnosed with the speech communication condition, which often strikes in childhood and sometimes disappears in high school. It is three times more common in males than females and can range from mild to severe. Its main characteristics: struggling to form words, as well as prolonging and repeating them.
“It's easier to talk than it is to read because I tend to change words at times when I talk to ones that I know will come out more easily,” Delo said. “If I have to read, everyone knows what I am reading. I can't change the words, so that makes me more nervous. That adds to the stuttering.”
Researchers aren’t sure what causes stuttering. It is not curable, although it is modifiable through speech therapy and repetitive speaking techniques, which is why talking to others and being open about it can be helpful. That also can be quite daunting, as Delo has learned since starting speech therapy 5 1/2 years ago.
Having a stutter can lead to anxiety and depression. Fear that comes with talking also often causes tension in the lips, throat and shoulders. Delo has learned that deep breathing, yoga and other exercise can help.
Speech therapy now concentrates on helping those who stutter do so more productively, instead of by limiting speech.
“When I started school here, I used to get accommodations from the disability office to do my presentations with just the professor and not the whole class,” Delo said during a recent interview on campus. “A year and a half ago, I chose not to have the accommodations and to do my presentations with the class. It was a little hard at first although as I have done more presentations, I have gotten to a point where I'm more comfortable. These are students that I am with all the time, so it has gotten easier. I still am disfluent at times – and I know that some students are uncomfortable because they don't look at me a lot – although practicing ahead of time helps a lot.”
About a dozen adults generally attend support meetings Delo helps lead with Hannah White, a speech language pathology major at Buffalo State, and Erin O'Brien Wilson, a speech pathologist at the University at Buffalo. Topics change monthly. A welcoming atmosphere persists.
The gatherings give Delo a small taste of what has become her most exciting experience since becoming more open about the way she talks: attending the annual National Stuttering Association conference, which is expect to draw about 900 people in July to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
“Two quotes that I heard at the last conference that have really resonated in me are, ‘Bring things up so they lose power in bringing you down,’ and ‘Speak freely and live fearlessly,’ ” she said. “It was amazing. If you're ever wondering if there's anyone else who has a stutter and that you're alone, and that no one understands what you're going through, if you go to a conference, that will all change.”