By Allyson Freedman
Despite all of his accomplishments, Ben Goldstein of Baltimore still finds it difficult to order a cup of coffee.
Since early childhood, Goldstein, 24, has had a stutter. Despite his speech impediment, he spent a year in Israel teaching English, graduated with almost a 4.0 grade point average from college and received a full scholarship to a Top 25 law school. Trading in his law aspirations for a career in speech pathology, Goldstein is determined to help others reach their full potential.
“When I was younger, I spent my whole day thinking about stuttering,” said Goldstein. “I would plan my day around it. I would go to a grocery store and try to avoid speaking as much as possible. Now, I realize stuttering is just one small part of me.”
According to the Stuttering Foundation, more than 68 million people worldwide stutter, 3 million in the United States. Stuttering affects males four times as much as females. While there is no cure for stuttering, patients can alleviate symptoms through therapy.
“Stuttering is a neurological and genetic disorder and is not caused by psychological factors,” said University of Maryland clinical professor and speech-language pathologist Vivian Sisskin. “However, therapy aims to change the way stutterers think and potentially lessen the stutter. Many people try to hide their stutter through avoidance. Paradoxically, avoidance intensifies the stutter. Instead, we teach them to advertise it. That reduces fear.”
Growing up in Finksburg, Goldstein attended Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s elementary and middle school and the Park School for high school. On top of normal grade-school pressures, he experienced an added layer of anxiety due to his stuttering.
“I used to avoid answering questions in class or ordering certain foods at restaurants with my friends,” said Goldstein. “For much of my life, I thought I was the only person in the world who stutters. Therapy was my turning point.”
Once Goldstein began his undergraduate career at the University of Maryland, he started working with Sisskin and joined an adult therapy group. A regular in the group, Goldstein now serves as a mentor for new members.
“Ben is a leader in the stuttering community,” said Sisskin. “He developed a joy of communicating and is very open about his stutter. Ben is able to define many of his own problems with stuttering and has become his own clinician.”
Through therapy, Goldstein has learned how to live with stuttering. Comparing stuttering to asthma, he explains that stuttering can reach high or low points depending on the context and conditions of the situation.
“If you run a marathon, your asthma may increase. If I get up and speak in front of a large crowd, my stuttering may increase. The worst that can happen is that I’ll get embarrassed. And no one has died of embarrassment yet,” he said.
Taking a gap year between undergraduate and graduate school, he opted for 10 months abroad as an Israel Service Fellow through Masa Israel Journey. Living in the mixed city of Acre, a northern Israel town that is 70 percent Jewish and 30 percent Arab, Goldstein taught students English in an underprivileged school along with 16 other American Jews. As well as stuttering, Goldstein also had to conquer a language barrier.
“My first day of school, I learned how to say ‘I stutter’ in Hebrew,” said Goldstein. “At one point, I had trouble getting some words out and felt blocked. One of my first-grade students came up to me and gave me a hug. I wish everyone had a reaction like that.”
Using creative techniques such as singing to his students and using a stuttering puppet to entertain the children, Goldstein confidently led his class. Goldstein recalled that one of his scariest experiences was presenting a speech in front of 600 people at a Masa event.
“I was asked to present on behalf of my program,” he said. “I went up there and stuttered continuously. However, I did it. Many people asked me if I was scared to go to Israel with my stutter. I had challenges there, but so did everyone else. I’m not going to let one part of my life define me.”
Now studying to be a speech pathologist, Goldstein assists four students as part of his course load.
“I work with teenagers right now to help them tackle everyday problems,” said Goldstein. “One of my kids is a 12-year-old nonverbal student on the autism spectrum. We are working with him on making sounds and one day say basic words. Years ago, I walked into the University of Maryland as a speech client. Now, I am working as a student clinician. It is hard to believe.”
As both his teacher and his speech pathologist, Sisskin believes that Goldstein has a bright future in speech pathology.
“Due to the fact that Ben has experienced speech problems himself, his clients will look up to him,” said Sisskin. “Younger students will see that Ben is a cool guy who happens to stutter. They will model themselves after him.”
Seeing speech pathology as his calling, he aims to change lives through therapy.
“Vivian (Sisskin) changed my life, and I want to be that influence for someone else,” said Goldstein. “Going through life with a stutter is not easy, but if I can provide support, I will feel fulfilled.”