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Joe Biden, the 47th vice President of the United States, has had quite a life: at 29, he was one of the youngest senators of all time; a month after he was elected, his wife and daughter were killed in a car accident. He ran for president twice. Soon after the first attempt, he suffered an aneurysm (which he fully recovered from). Most recently, he suffered the tragic death of his oldest son, Beau Biden, the former attorney general of Delaware.

Image credit: Jason and Bonnie Grower

He also had a stuttering problem until his 20s and overcame it by reading poetry aloud in front of a mirror, to smooth out cadence and forcing himself to participate in as many public speaking events as possible. Years ago, he met a middle school student on a class tour through DC who was struggling with his stutter and wrote him a letter: “You can beat it just like I did. When you do, you will be a stronger man for having won.” Since then, Joe Biden has been vocal about his childhood stutter, inspiring others to follow in his footsteps.

Stuttering is a speech disorder also known as stammering or dysphemia in which the flow of speech is disrupted by involuntary repetitions and prolongations of sounds, syllables, words or phrases as well as involuntary silent pauses or blocks in which the person who stutters is unable to produce sounds.

The term stuttering is most commonly associated with involuntary sound repetition, but it also encompasses the abnormal hesitation or pausing before speech, referred to by people who stutter as blocks, and the prolongation of certain sounds, usually vowels or semivowels.

According to Watkins et al., stuttering is a disorder of “selection, initiation, and execution of motor sequences necessary for fluent speech production”. For many people who stutter, repetition is the main problem. The term “stuttering” covers a wide range of severity, encompassing barely perceptible impediments that are largely cosmetic to severe symptoms that effectively prevent oral communication. In the world, approximately four times as many men as women stutter, encompassing 70 million people worldwide, or about 1% of the world’s population.

More than 1% of the South African population are stutterers, while 5% stutter at some time and recover spontaneously during childhood.

“It is not known what causes stuttering, but what we do know is that it is a complex interplay of a combination of factors like genetics, family dynamics and child development,” says Lilian, speech therapist at the Donald Gordon Medical Centre in Johannesburg (Donald Gordon Medical Centre stuttering communication disability Voice Amp 601 stammer stammering stutterer).

There is no cure for stuttering. But for 70 years it has been known that situations where a phenomenon called choral accompaniment occurs – such as singing, reciting poetry, or speaking alone – often improve fluency.

Knowing that hearing one’s own voice can also cause a person to speak effortlessly, Falck, the managing director of Voice Amp, invented the device in collaboration with research teams at the University of the Witwatersrand and other South African universities. It is now being successfully marketed across the world. Falck is no stranger to inventions; he has been known to be creative with his hands from the age of eight, when he started making solar panels. His interest in speech aids began when his grandfather lost his ability to speak clearly; Falck invented a device that amplified his grandfather’s vocal cords.

How it works

The Voice Amp 601 is based on an electronic reproduction of choral accompaniment, where the device receives the user’s voice signal via a microphone. This signal is then processed by the device and altered to produce a choral voice. The choral voice is then played back to the user via an earpiece, which unlocks the stuttering effect and allows the user to speak with little or no interruption. Settings for three different background noise levels can be programmed to simulate noisy to quiet backgrounds at the flick of a switch.

This device helps mainly those with a severe stutter and is best used in conjunction with speech therapy,” says Lilian. “For those who have benefited it really does make a remarkable difference to their lives.” (Donald Gordon Medical Centre stuttering communication disability Voice Amp 601 stammer stammering stutterer).