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Sean Evans: A matter of speaking

JACKSON, Tenn.July 29, 2002 – Ask political science professor Sean Evans what he likes to do in his free time, and he will tell you that he loves to play basketball and golf. Ask him what he likes to talk about and he will tell you – politics.

But talking and speaking are two different things and for this laid-back, witty college professor, speaking has been a challenge to overcome.

Growing up in Decatur, Ala., Evans easily recalls his childhood and smiles back on it, despite having a stuttering problem that began in the first grade. By the time he reached fifth grade, his stutter had become a problem that worried teachers.

“I remember when my homeroom teacher took me aside toward the end of school that year and told me I’d never be able to do anything in life if I didn’t do something about my stuttering problem,” recalls Evans, who can look back and laugh about it now as he sits and talks with a reporter in his office. “Needless to say, I can’t remember her name.”

The stuttering problem did cause him and his parents concern, and they quickly set about trying to cure their son’s speech problem.

They tried several methods and visited various experts to find a solution. One psychologist suggested that Evan’s problem was nothing but a cry for attention and that he needed to be loved more. A doctor checked out his hearing, thinking that maybe he was not hearing things properly and saying things incorrectly. However, he proved to have perfect hearing. He went through various school speech therapies, but nothing helped until his family found the Hollins Communication Research Institute (HCRI) based in Roanoke, Va.

“I know that when I step in front of a classroom, I can talk about anything,” says Evans.

“I know that when I step in front of a classroom, I can talk about anything,” says Evans.

The HCRI was created and run by speech pathologists at Hollins College and has had a couple of famous patients such as ABC News correspondent John Stossel and John Glenn’s wife, Annie Glenn. Although there was a two-year waiting list to get into HCRI, Evans was able to get into the program when he was only 10, thanks in part to a man who was friends with his uncle and who had gone through the program successfully himself. The youngest child taking the three-week program, Evans left the institute a success after weeks of extensive speech exercises. While he was at HCRI, he learned from the pathologists the reason behind stuttering.

“One of the major reasons why many people stutter is because they breathe incorrectly,” Evans explains. “They have found that stutterers tend to breathe with their chests, instead of breathing in with their diaphragm. They put a lot of stress on the lungs as they strain for air. The air has to flow through the voice box in order to produce sound. Since stutterers don’t breathe deep enough, they don’t get enough air and that causes the problem.”

Another problem that stutterers have is that they try to say too much in too quick of a time period.

“I was basically taught how to slow down ,” Evans explains. “What they did [the faculty at HCRI] was give us a stopwatch and during the first week we had to time ourselves to speak in two-second syllables. That was their way of slowing us down.”

For Evans, practice came day and night.

“People came up to me and had me talk to them. For someone who was a stutterer, that was a big thing.” Before he learned how to handle his stutter, he endured cruel teasing from kids, but after his program, his speech was almost perfect.

“It used to be I was afraid to speak on the phone because of my stutter,” says Evans. “Part of the whole process was to talk to people to get over some of the inefficiencies that I had. I don’t think I stuttered for six years after that.”

Union professor Sean Evans enjoys teaching his students about the innerworkings of American government.

Union professor Sean Evans enjoys teaching his students about the innerworkings of American government.

Now he gets up in front of college students and teaches for a living, a feat not many saw possible for him.

“It’s still nerve-racking to speak before groups, though not like it used to be,” Evans admits.

He now believes that when he started teaching in graduate school, his stuttering was not as bad because he was teaching about something that he loves. His love of politics helped him stand up in front of students and speak, while giving him confidence and the knowledge that he was an expert in his field.

The fact that he has made it this far is helping people better understand that speech impairments like stuttering are not signs of mental impairments.

“I remember when I started college, someone I knew acted so surprised to see me,” says Evans. “He was telling me how proud he was of me that I was in school. Growing up, hearing me stutter, he thought I was an idiot. He thought I was someone who did not have the intelligence to carry on a conversation, that the stuttering was a manifestation of that.”

Evans thinks that is the way a lot of people view speech impairments today. “There is a misconception about stuttering. A lot of people think it’s a disability and it isn’t,” he says.

Evans has definitely helped break that misconception. With the love and support of his family, help from the research institute, and a passion for politics, he made the transformation from someone who once dreaded answering the phone to someone who looks forward to teaching everyday in the classroom.

“Politics is something I have loved from an early age,” he said. “Being in the classroom and talking about it gives me the confidence to teach.

“I know that when I step in front of a classroom, I can talk about anything.”

By Tracie Holden, Class of 2004

Media contact: Sara B. Horn, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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