Dubious causes and cures were part of speech disorder treatment 

Many of us live with speech disorders, often in combination with another disability. Therapies and assistance have greatly changed over the […]

Many of us live with speech disorders, often in combination with another disability. Therapies and assistance have greatly changed over the years, as has the stigma around speech disorders. 

Speech disorders can have many origins and can include stuttering, apraxia and dysarthria. The disorders can have many possible causes. People on the autism spectrum may have speech disorders. Or the disorders can be caused by brain injuries, muscle weaknesses, hearing loss or degenerative diseases. Some people can successfully counter speech disorders through therapy. Others live with the disorders and must find ways to adapt. 

Speech disorders in children can be of special concern, as communication is such an important part of child development. Speech disorders can also hold people back from jobs and other opportunities. 

Years ago, speech disorders or “speech impediments” were not well understood. People were labeled as “dumb” and many doors were closed to them. 

Newspapers were filled with details of dubious “miracle” cures, often promoted by traveling salesmen who may or may not have been doctors despite claiming the medical title. 

It is interesting to note how the words “stammer” and stutter” were used interchangeably years ago. Today we’d consider “stammer” to be more of a British term for what people in North America refer to as stuttering. 

Looking back 110 years ago, larger cities had special schools for students with speech disorders. Those schools and camps were offered for children who stuttered. The Duke School for Stammerers offered a summer school and recreational camp at Lake Minnetonka, as well as year-round classes. The school had opened in 1893 and offered instruction for the correction of “stuttering, stammering and other speech impediments.” 

Urban school districts such as Minneapolis and St. Paul had classrooms or entire schools set aside for children with speech disorders. Most students would attend the special schools as well as their neighborhood schools.  

One 1913 Star Tribune article described Minneapolis’ two schools, Greeley and Hawthorne, for  “stutterers and stammerers.” The schools included pupils who lisped or had other speech disorders, as well as students who were deaf. Students who had learned how to speak without stuttering were held up as examples in the articles, reading aloud for newspaper reporters. 

Along with the usual steps of teaching children to speak slowly and use proper tongue positioning, one therapy was for children to engage in outdoor sports and games. Such activities were seen as making children less self-conscious and worried about what impressions they would give people. 

In contrast, too much time spent at the movie theater was blamed by some teachers. “Movies are especially pernicious for their effects, it is said. The subjects are usually of the excitable sort, especially injurious to the nerves of stammerers. The light and wavering of the film have a bad effect on the eyes and consequently on the nerves. The show keeps the child out when he should be sleeping. The air usually is bad, and the associations often harmful.” 

Children who stuttered were said to be ‘thrilled” by the excitement on the movie screen, which compounded problems caused by “diseased” nerves. Teachers also blamed “dime novels “ which were often lurid stories in cheap books. 

Another newspaper account blamed cigarettes for causing stuttering in children. Students at the Minneapolis schools were banned from drinking coffee and tea, and told to go easy on the candy. 

It would be interesting to know how many of the 1913 students fared as they grew up, and what they would think of more conventional therapies today. 
 
The History Note is a monthly column produced in cooperation with the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities. Past History Notes and other disability history may be found at www.mnddc.org 

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