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Speech disorder leads to a career helping others

Klein_and_grad_students_t.jpgBOONE—Joe Klein changed his original career plans of becoming a reporter because of a speech disorder. It’s lucky for others that he did.

Klein stutters. An assistant professor in Appalachian State University’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, Klein trains future speech pathologists to help others who have speech disorders.

Dr. Joe Klein and Julie Bounous, left and Allison Pierce_t2.jpg

Dr. Joe Klein, center, talks with graduate students Julie Bounous, left, and Allison Pierce about techniques to use when working with clients who stutter. Klein is an assistant professor in Appalachian State University’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders and is a stutterer. Bounous and Pierce are graduate students in the department’s speech-language pathology degree program.

“I had wanted to major in journalism, but I was terrified of using the phone and terrified of asking questions,” Klein said. “I chose a degree in philosophy for which I only had to read books and write papers. I let my speech disorder choose my college major for me.”

Klein began stuttering at about age 3, an age when stuttering typically appears in children.

He says the exact cause of stuttering is unknown. It can be related to genetics, or be based in a physiological or neurological problem.  “Speaking is such a complicated process. It uses many parts of the brain and there are various muscles involved in speech,” he said. “If we don’t know how people put all of that together, we can’t really understand why it breaks down either.”

Stuttering occurs in about 1 percent of the population and usually begins between the ages of 2 and 4. “A lot of children recover fairly quickly, but if you get beyond that 3- and 4-year window, it’s very hard to completely recover from stuttering,” Klein said.

Like most stutterers, Klein developed ways to hide his problem. He would change words mid-sentence if he knew they were likely to cause a problem, or he would avoid talking in class.

He received speech therapy as a child, but it wasn’t until his early 20s that Klein fully understood his stuttering. Speech therapy that focused on stuttering and his use of forced stuttering to analyze how he stuttered helped Klein improve his fluency. “That really improved my whole life – not only my talking but how I viewed myself,” he said.

That’s also when he decided to pursue advance degrees in speech and language disorders.

“I wanted to be able to help other people who stuttered however I could. A lot of speech therapists aren’t really that good working with people who stutter because most of their work focuses on those who have language or articulation disorders,” he said. “Everyone usually ends up with just one client who stutters on their caseload, so they never really get very good at it. It’s important to me to try and provide good therapy to my clients and strategies for speech therapists to use with their clients.”

While analyzing how he stuttered helped Klein reduce his stutters, beneficial strategies for others might include breathing smoothly and easily when speaking or prolonging their vowel sounds.

While at Appalachian, Klein hopes to start a campus chapter of the National Stuttering Association, a support group for people who stutter. He also wants to research the role of support groups in improving a person’s stuttering. “There is a lot of support for people who stutter but we don’t have any research on how these support groups help people who stutter – is it the support alone, or is a therapy component needed as well?” he said.

He also will continue to find ways to improve speech therapy provided to students in the public schools. “When a therapist has 25 clients with articulation disorders, 25 with a language disorder and one who stutters, we need to find ways to improve the therapy provided to that one student in a class or school system who stutters, as well as stutterers in the adult population.

“When people first come in for therapy, they often are in a job they don’t like and probably could be doing a lot more than what they are currently doing, or perhaps they don’t have as much of a social life as they would like to have,” Klein said. “Part of our job is to help open up their world.”

The Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders is housed in the College of Health Sciences. It offers the Bachelor of Science in communication disorders and the Master of Science in speech-language pathology. Details about the degree offerings are at

The department’s Charles E. and Geneva S. Scott Scottish Rite Communication Disorders Clinic is located off Blowing Rock Road in University Hall. It provides individual diagnostics and treatment for a variety of speech, language and hearing disorders. More information in online at