Stammering affects as many as 1 in 100 adults, or 70 million people worldwide. And a new conceptual device is designed to increase that figure, at least for the few moments that the 'abled' speaking person wears this collar-like wearable around their neck.
Stacha permits wearers to experience a stuttering-like sensation by sending a faint – and thankfully painless – current of electricity through the larynx, which then constricts the muscles in the throat, making it difficult to properly pronounce words. It's the creation of a team of seven designers, headed up by 25-year-old Yuka Fukuoka.
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Originally from Japan, Fukuoka is currently enrolled in the Design for Social Innovation program at the School of Visual Arts in New York and she's chosen stuttering as her design subject because she herself suffers from the condition.
The iceberg issue
Stuttering or stammering is a disorder defined by a broken pattern of speech, either by the repetition of syllables, prolongation of words, or extended pauses. Sometimes facial and body movements can accompany efforts to speak.
Figures from the British Stammering Association suggest that 5% or more of children under the age of five go through a stammering phase at some point in their speech and language development and without therapy a quarter of these children will go on to develop a persistent stammer.
Fukuoka started stuttering when she was nine years old and she describes her experience, which worsened until she was 24, as a "great influence" on her life. As a child, she was often told that the condition would disappear once she stopped being nervous. It didn't. "Since stuttering is not very openly known many people think you can treat it if you just keep trying, that it's a simple matter of mentality," she told us.
On the surface, it's easy to see where this assumption comes from – that stammering is something that happens to your speech, not your life. But as Fukuoka explains, stuttering goes well beyond being unable to articulate sentences. "Every day at Starbucks my voice shakes when I order. I worry about stuttering, my voice grows quiet, and they ask me to repeat myself over and over."
Struggling to speak in front of people, particularly in another country where you have to speak a language you don't know, can lead to a total loss of confidence, Fukuoka says, and in a worse case scenario this can lead to becoming isolated from social circles as you "stop approaching people and miss out on chances in life."
For stutterers, a routine trip to Starbucks can turn into a crisis quicker than you can say, 'Caramel Macchiato to go, please.'
Some therapists describe this as the 'iceberg effect': the speech impediment is the bit on the surface that everyone sees, whereas the bulk of the issue is unseen, with many stutterers developing feelings of insecurity, embarrassment, and shame, on a daily basis, leading to high rates of social anxiety disorders and even depression.
A new type of device
The British Stammering Association list numerous apps and electronic devices that help people who stammer using 'altered auditory feedback'. This slows down the speed at which the wearer hears their own voice - slowing the pace of speaking has been proven to help stammerers ease into their speech rather than immediately judge themselves on the way in which they're talking.
Fukuoka, though, wanted to create a device that "shifts the paradigm of stuttering and speech impediments as a whole" and after working on a documentary at the University of Tokyo, about someone who took a job as school counsellor despite stuttering, she realised social awareness of stuttering has not only remained low but that "almost all of the existing products deal with people who stutter" rather educating those who don't.
Over several months she developed the idea for a simulation device with the assistance of self-help group Tokyo Genyukai, people from stuttering circles in the University of Tokyo, and medical researchers until eventually the device was showcased at SXSW earlier this year.
Fukuoka admitted Stacha's design offers a "light experience". It's purposefully been designed to be approachable; something that can be worn right away amongst friends in a shared experience. She didn't want to create something that focussed on "understanding a disability". She wanted a design that caught the interest of people, regardless of age, and offered a unique learning opportunity. This, Fukuoka says, is where wearables are unique; put one on and it becomes part of you. For raising awareness of "invisible" mental health and physical conditions, wearables can be invaluable.
"Simply by giving someone an experience that can't normally be seen we can quite easily draw the interest of people," she said, "and ultimately help cultivate empathy towards those with unseen disabilities, especially in regional communities."
The last word
Stacha is not the only device of its kind. Earlier this year researchers at Klick Labs, a Canadian healthcare marketing company, developed the SymPulse, a wearable that induces the involuntary tremors experienced by people with Parkinson's disease.
When the device was tested on a hundred people, most asked for the muscle contractions to stop after only two minutes. As with Stacha the device is not likely to reach market but rather be used as an educational tool for teachers, family members, doctors, and caregivers.
As such, Fukuoka continues to introduce the device to stuttering communities in the US, participating in the National Stuttering Association Conference that was held in Dallas last month; taking the concept to students aspiring to be speech-language-hearing therapists; as well as members of self-help groups for stuttering.
Ultimately, she hopes that once awareness towards stuttering has grown, those who suffer the condition will feel less pressure when communicating with those who don't. Hopefully this can make going about their day, whether it's socialising at work or something as simple as ordering coffee, a more carefree experience.
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