Kids crowd in a room for summer camp at the University of Texas Sports Recreation Center. They horse around, they sing and dance – and they're not embarrassed to speak.
At this free camp for children who stutter, it's not about fixing speech; it’s about encouraging it.
Camp Dream. Speak. Live is a weeklong intensive therapy program within UT’s Lang Stuttering Institute, the only specialized research center in the nation that provides free stuttering treatment for adults and children.
The program was the brainchild of Dr. Courtney Byrd, the institute’s founding director. While doing post-doctoral research at UT, she found there was a limited number of specialists who could provide assessments or treatment for stuttering in Texas.
“There’s just a general lack of knowledge about what to do with someone who stutters,” she says. “Far too often, people focus on only the observable behaviors.”
In 2014, UT received a $3 million gift to establish the Lang Institute, and Byrd jumped at the chance to help lead the program. The treatment focuses on communication effectiveness, communication attitude and social peer relationships.
Three years ago, Byrd began offering that same treatment at a camp for students from all over the world.
“That program has really taken off,” she says.
About 60 students – aged 4 to 17 – are picked at random from a waiting list to attend. The list currently has 300 people on it.
“It’s amazing, first of all,” says 14-year-old Royal Cumby, who was once a camper and is now a junior counselor. “It’s kind of like a safe place.”
Royal began treatment for stuttering at the age of 3 and continues to receive help at the Lang Institute. Boys are two to three times more likely to stutter, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.
Royal says this safe space encouraged him to not only be comfortable with his stutter, but also understand that people who stutter can still be effective communicators. He says he’s learned skills like disclosing.
“It’s where you introduce yourself like, ‘Hi, my name is Royal and I have a stutter, and you may hear me repeat some words, so if you don’t understand, please ask me to repeat,’” he says. “That’s really helped me.”
Royal says he wants to become a speech and language pathologist one day. He’d be entering a field with about 1,250 professionals who identify as experts in fluency disorders. But only 1 percent of those clinicians find themselves competent enough to treat the millions of people who stutter.
“Embrace what you have because not many people have it,” Royal says. “You’re special and you need to teach other people about it and get them educated.”
He’s doing just that by teaching other kids, like 11-year-old Jack Meadors.
“You can get away from the bullies who bully you because of your stutter because everyone [at camp] knows how it feels,” says Jack, who came to Texas from South Carolina.
He says being around other kids who stutter has helped him understand his own value.
“I think that there’s nothing wrong with me,” Jack says. “It’s a gift.”
That gift is not usually addressed in a productive manner, says Mary O’Dwyer, a speech and language pathologist from Trinity College Dublin who’s helping with the camp. O’Dwyer is part of the European Clinical Specialization in Fluency Disorders, a one-year initiative that’s partnered with the Lang Institute to expand outreach for those who stutter.
O’Dwyer says the challenges faced by those who stutter in Texas are universal.
“There’s just such a stigma around stuttering that people don’t talk about,” she says. “And parents don’t talk to their children about something that is terrifying their child. It’s just so hard to fathom.”
O’Dwyer says this can also be hard for scientists who study the condition.
“The real experts are the people who stutter, even if they’re 4 years of age, you know, they really are the experts,” she says. “We haven’t listened to them enough, but now I think more and more we’re bringing their voice into research.”
Byrd says the program is not only an effort to provide more adequate treatment to people who stutter, but also to increase the workforce catering to that population.
“It certainly takes a team of a lot of giving wonderful people who are willing to take a chance on this because they've seen the impact,” Byrd says.
This past February, Camp Dream. Speak. Live. was hosted in Belgium for the first time. It will be expanded to Portugal and Ireland next year, but Byrd says the camp – which is funded through donations – still has a growing waiting list.
“It takes an average of a year to have access to our everyday services, so it’s exciting but it’s also daunting,” she says. “It’s something that stays with me every night.”
Royal says plans to continue being a counselor, so he can keep sharing the message of Camp Dream. Speak. Live.
“Dream, everyone is supposed to dream big but live, I mean like, live your life out. ... Don't be afraid and speak,” he says. “Everyone needs to speak with your stutter. Don't be afraid to speak even if you have one.”