Page last updated at 10:40 GMT, Thursday, 23 July 2009 11:40 UK

I've started, so I'll finish...

Chris Eubank

By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

Former boxing world champion Chris Eubank is having his teeth fixed and hopes it will cure his lisp. But is a speech impediment a barrier to success?

Churchill, Newton, Darwin, Eubank - can you spot the odd one out? If you're talking about speech impediments then there isn't one, they all had or have one. But in case of former boxing world champion Chris Eubank, not for much longer.

He is spending £30,000 on getting his teeth fixed and hopes it will cure his pronounced lisp. "Before long nobody will be able to accuse me of having a lisp," he says.

James Alexander Gordon
James Alexander Gordon's voice has been his career

For a man who goes to great lengths to stand out from the crowd - note his penchant for tweeds, monocles and seven-tonne articulated lorries - it seems a strange move. After all, his lisp is one of the things he is best known for.

But his expensive dental work suggests he is still conscious of it at the age of 42. And judging by the bad puns in the papers' coverage of the news, he has good reason. So how do you deal with a speech impediment?

We will never really know with Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton, but we do know their stutters certainly didn't hold them back professionally. The same can be said of Winston Churchill, he defined history with his words and actions - not his stammer.

Jonathan Ross famously cannot pronounce his Rs, a phonetic difficulty that is technically known as rhotacism. It hasn't affected his multi-million pound career as a chat-show host and presenter, but it's definitely one of the things that defines him in the public eye.

For James Alexander Gordon it was a case of tackling it head on and overcoming it. As a child he suffered from slurred speech, a condition known as dysarthria, but it didn't stop wanting to be a radio presenter.


He has been the voice of the football results on BBC radio for over three decades, and his voice is so distinctive students in Sweden use it to practise their inflection.

"Speech therapists didn't even exist back then but I had two strong-willed parents who drove me on," he says.

"I loved language and sounds from an early age and was encouraged to read and speak all the time. This love meant overcoming my impediment was a challenge, but never horrid or a chore.

Apraxia - Unable to consistently and correctly say what you mean
Cluttering - Repeating syllables or phrases multiple times
Dysprosody - Changes in the intensity, rhythm, cadence and intonation of words
Rhotacism - Difficulty pronouncing Rs
Selective Mutism - Unable to speak in certain situations
Source: Speech Disorder

"I just kept at it and it took a combination of the mental and physical to succeed. Because of the support of my family I never thought I wouldn't get rid of my slurred speech, it didn't enter my head.

"The first time I read the news on BBC radio my parents were listening at home. My father disappeared from the room and my mother found him sobbing in their bedroom. He said 'the wee bugger has done it'. He was proud and I'm proud of what I've overcome and achieved."

Specialists are quick to point out there is a wide array of speech impediments and communication disabilities, and like any spectrum some are more severe than others.

The causes are also varied and complex. Some people are born with them, while others acquire them because of anything from a stroke to acute shyness. In some cases specialists simply don't understand why they happen.

'Comfort zones'

But every day, millions of people in the UK are coping with speech impediments which impact on every area of their lives.

"It's inevitable because speaking is the way we conduct relationships and a way we get across our emotions and feelings," says Melanie Derbyshire, chief executive of the charity Speakability. "Relationships are involved in nearly everything we do."

For some people accepting their impediment is a large part of coping with it. From there, techniques and exercises can help them manage or lessen it.

Jaik Campbell
Jaik Campbell says stuttering makes him a better comic

Jaik Campbell has always had a stammer and it was actually speech therapy that made him take up stand-up comedy. It's something he says he might never have done if things had been different.

"I had speech therapy to tackle my severe stammer and it encourages you to push your comfort zones and speak as much as you can," he says. "We'd go out with our teacher and have to ask strangers for directions, things like that. I just took it to the extreme."

He explains his stutter to the audience as part of his act, but it's not central to it. While it hasn't hindered his career, he says some venues are wary of booking him because they are unsure what to expect. In his opinion stuttering has made him a better comedian.

"Some venues are worried I will stutter so badly I won't be able to get much out of my mouth," he says.

"But I have coping strategies, like learning my material word for word. I think that makes me better at what I do because I know my act inside out. I've seen comedians without a speech impediment try to wing it and completely bomb."


But he feels he has also experienced discrimination. He's been turned down for lots of jobs and was even asked if he was cold and needed the heating turned up in one interview because of his stammering.

He says talking about speech impediments is important as, once people understand, a lot of the pressure is off the person who has it and who they are talking to.

However, for many people their speech impediment is always on their mind and influences nearly everything they do.

Chris Eubank
Eubank is known for his eccentric choice of transport

Gail Thretton suffers from cluttering, when syllables or phrases are repeated multiple times literally leaving a person's speech cluttered with words

"The reality is my speech problems are on my mind all the time and I adapt my behaviour constantly and avoid situations," she says.

"I try to explain my problem to people, but it's just exhausting doing that all of the time. If I'm not having a good day I just don't go out so I don't have to mix with strangers.

"I can laugh at my problem and see the funny side of it, but sometimes I just don't want to. It's not such a giggle if you live with it day and night."

Maybe in the case of Eubank, who on occasion has played along with the media's jokes about his lisp, he's had enough of people laughing at him and not with him.

Below is a selection of your comments.

My children went through years of speech therapy when they were at primary school to stop them lisping or using wobbly 'R's. However did presenters like Jonathan Ross or Carol Thatcher get jobs - they just set a bad example to our children!
June, Evesham

Jaik's and Gail's comments ring so true. I have a slight stammer which I manage in the same way as them. It can be exhausting and my brain is working overtime to think of different ways of saying the same thing to avoid "hard" sounds such as those starting with "a" or "f". I don't think it's held me back but i've learned to develop a thick skin!
Dom Corcoran, Wiltshire

June, how on earth are presenters with speech impediments a bad example? Surely it demonstrates that something which is looked on as a disability to some people, is actually a very minor thing and should not hold you back. Would you prefer a world where only people who spoke proper Queen's English were allowed to be seen and heard? Good grief, woman!
Rhi McCrorie, Ipswich

My mother is profoundly deaf, and therefore "inherited" her speech patterns, which meant that I spoke with a pronounced lisp. It wasn't until attending school that it became clear that I spoke differently I was bullied and suffered considerable derision by my school mates which made my life a misery. Speech therapy helped considerably, but even now, in my mid 50's, if I'm tired or have a had a couple of drinks, my lisp reappears, and if it gets remarked on, all those old feelings return. Perhaps I'm too sensitive. Chris Eubank should do whatever makes his life happier.
Bob Harrison, Halstead, Kent

I have always enjoyed the rich and diverse manner in which people speak. Sadly there are those in our society who bully those who they consider to have some form of speech imperfection. I get very frustrated with individuals who complain they can't understand someone. Listening is a skill we are all capable of refining. We should make more effort to listen to what others have to say rather than fussing about how they say it.
Norm, Derby/United Kingdom

It is about time people realise how much we have to suffer due to this. Like Gail, every syllable I say I have to really think about the pronunciation, otherwise it comes out too quick and sounds wrong. I can get really frustrated with this but knowing that people overcome it (in a work sense) can give you confidence. But with Eubank paying 30k, he should be ok. But not everyone has that money spare. We still have to receive the jokes, the looks, everyday. And the NHS won't fund it.
Jamie Burton, Bristol

June, I read your comment and my eyes filled up. I had a slight lisp as a child and still have a slightly sibilent 's' as an adult. I'm so sad that you think that TV presenters who haven't had their speech 'fixed' are a bad example. On the contrary I think they are a fabulous example.
Ros, London

Good on Jaik. Having a stammer and being a stand up comedian - now that shows real guts. As a life long stammerer and an even longer fan of stand up comedy I am truly impressed.
Andrew Booth, Oldham, UK

My son has a lisp and I think it's lovely. He's always had it but I think he only does it because he's lazy. He CAN speak without it if he concentrates hard enough. I wouldn't want him to change it though; it's just part of him. Anyway he's worn braces top and bottom and it didn't make any difference to his lisp after dental treatment.
Julie, Liverpool

In the 70', when I was a child, I was left with a stammer following an accident. My mother patiently listened and on occasions when I couldn't get me words out she calmly asked me to stop, think and then speak. She also taught me to speak with a rhythm. I no longer have the stammer.
Patrick B, Cardiff

The great Irish humourist, Patrick Campbell, appeared on Call My Bluff on the BBC in spite of a dreadful stammer. He also used it to hilarious effect in his Sunday Times articles and even one of his books was titled "P-p-p-patrick Campbell"!
Allan, Crewe

I was born with my speech impediments but I have managed to cope with it. But is not all that easy as words are always taken from your month. I personal have faced a lot of discrimination because of my speech impediments in regards to jobs interview and asking for something in a public places. You are look strangely, as if you are some kind of an alien. I think society should be educated as we are not all the same.
Rexford Oppong, London

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