Ann Dewar Gives the Gift of Tongues to Those Who Stutter

updated 01/07/1980 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/07/1980 01:00AM

Stammering can be a hideous thing," says Ann Dewar, a Scottish speech therapist who is the first to admit the sorry history of her profession in treating the affliction. The traditional method, she says, is a sort of assertiveness training in which the patient is just plain bullied into trying to speak. Now Dewar, 52, has perfected a device called the "Edinburgh Masker," which has brought dramatic improvement in 82 percent of her cases.

The Masker looks like a hearing aid, but instead of amplifying, it blocks the stutterer's reception of his own voice. The principle behind the Masker dates back to 1931 when a German psychologist visited a waterfall with a severe stammerer. The roar of the water all but drowned out the patient's speech but, in the process, seemed to cure his stammer. When he couldn't hear his own words, he wasn't paralyzed by them. Other maskers had been tested pre-Dewar, but they awkwardly required the user to switch the device on manually before each attempt to speak. Dewar collaborated with her husband, Bill, a University of Edinburgh physiologist, on several prototypes. But it took a colleague of Bill's—an ex-RAF flyer—to develop the breakthrough device, a voice-activated variation of a pilot's throat microphone. The mike, secured over the voice box, is stimulated by the first vibrations in the larynx. Milliseconds before the first syllables have left the mouth, a low-frequency buzz coming from the control box is transmitted via thin tubes to a tiny pair of earplugs.

From a clinical sampling of 67 test users, Dewar found her Masker effective except in badminton-fast verbal volleying where conversations overlapped. Furthermore, many sufferers were able to wean themselves off the device without relapsing into old habits.

The Australian-born inventor first studied speech at Sydney's Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children and in the field in New Guinea before emigrating in 1954. She accepted a position at Edinburgh's Royal Infirmary where she met her husband. Surprisingly, Dewar isn't making a penny from the venture. "One can't take money for a thing like this because you'd put the price out of reach of patients," she explains. In the U.S., Chicago Realtor Herbert Goldberg, a former stammerer himself, is marketing the Edinburgh Masker at $275 through his nonprofit Foundation for Fluency. There's been only one major complainer so far: a husband who reported that his wife ran up 300 expensive phone calls the first three days she was fitted with her Masker.

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