09/16/2002 at 01:00 AM EDT
Growing up in Maynard, Mass., a small town near Boston, Joseph Kalinowski was bullied about his speech impediment. "I prayed to God to take my arm," says Kalinowski, 43, "and get rid of my stutter."
More than 3 million chronic stutterers in the U.S. share that pain. But Kalinowski, a speech-pathology professor at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., actually did something about it. A year ago, with colleagues Michael Rastatter and Andrew Stuart, he created the SpeechEasy, a hearing-aid-like device that allows users to hear an almost simultaneous echo of their own voice at a different pitch. For unknown reasons, that so-called "choral effect" suppresses stuttering—as Kalinowski discovered as a schoolboy reciting the Pledge of Allegiance with his class. Although larger devices mimicking the effect have been available since the 1960s, Kalinowski's invention is the first to be inconspicuous and comfortable enough for daily use. That's welcome news for stutterers put off by traditional therapies, which involve laborious behavioral exercises that don't always work. "This should be in the tool kit of every stuttering clinic along with other options," says Dr. Martin F. Schwartz, executive director of the National Center for Stuttering in New York City.
Still, Schwartz warns that the SpeechEasy's long-term effectiveness is unproven. But Kalinowski's experience with the device—which costs $4,000 and isn't covered by insurance—makes him optimistic. After receiving a doctorate in speech pathology from the University of Connecticut in 1992, he remained self-conscious about his stutter, sometimes letting his wife, Barbara, 40, also a speech pathologist, and children Amy, 9, and Alissa, 11, order for him at restaurants. In April 2001, after a decade of work, he became the first patient to wear his invention, which he views as a gift to the anguished boy he used to be. "That child is still alive in me," he says. "It's so gratifying to see people using this. It's helping people, and that's a huge impact."