Presence Spotlight for Clinicians: Elisabeth Balcom, M.A., CCC-SLP (Part 1)
A conversation with Elisabeth Balcom, one of our first full-time speech-language pathologists – Part 1
I was born and raised in California and still live there today. I was raised on a dairy farm in the Central Valley. I have a lot of brothers and sisters, which is an asset when you have a farm. I married, had children, and decided I wanted to expand my horizons so I went back to school to get my master’s degree when my children were in junior high. I have three children and three stepchildren. Both my daughters have degrees in speech-language pathology. One has her master’s and is working as an SLP. The other uses her communication skills in business—she’s a very good communicator. When I am not working, I like to cook. I’m really a good gardener. My son and I are putting in a huge garden. It’s 20 by 10. It’s almost more than a hobby because that’s a lot of work, but I love it.
When I went back to college at the time my children were in junior high, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I thought maybe I wanted to be a teacher. I took a class which was in the category of communication. It was an entry level speech pathology class. There was a little bit of articulation and an overview of what communication is. And then they had a section on stuttering.
I am a stutterer. I have been ever since I can remember. Some of my earliest memories of talking were that I couldn’t talk. I would be trying to say something, and it just literally wouldn’t come out. I was always a pretty descriptive thinker, and I wanted to talk. I had a lot to say. I was a little above average as a student and so the teacher would call on me to read, and sometimes I couldn’t. I hated reading aloud because I couldn’t hide—you can’t choose your words when you read. So, typically, I did a lot of avoidance behaviors, but when you read you can’t avoid sounds.
That was really hard for me. I also have two siblings that stuttered. One of them passed away, but neither of them allowed stuttering to impede their lives. Stuttering has never held anyone in our family back, socially or with jobs. But definitely it is a burden. It was an unspoken burden for me up to the point that I was in this class. I never talked about it. I thought that if I didn’t talk about it no one would notice, which is really not the case. I covered it pretty well sometimes, but I did avoid things. I was a cheerleader in high school but I didn’t do anything that required public, individual speaking.
So I was in this class, and they started talking about stuttering. I felt like the professor was talking right to me, and I felt personally offended. I felt like he was making fun of stutterers. It was unexpectedly offensive to me to hear it, and I immediately hated it and went home.
I thought deeply about it. Without being too dramatic, with the guidance of my strong personal faith, I decided that I was either going to hide it longer, or I was going to do something positive with it. So I decided to do something positive with it. I chose just to face it, learn as much as i could, and help others who also stuttered.
It was hard. I did well in graduate school though I was the only student who was also a stutterer. Everyone knew it. Some professors said they were anxious to see what a difference I would make with patients and students in the field of speech pathology. However, one of the professors took me into his office and talked to me about it, and asked if I really wanted to do what I’m doing. He said that the parents may not respect me as a professional, and that parents may not want me to be a provider because I don’t have perfectly smooth speech. That hurt.
I was a parent. And I knew differently. For instance, when my girls were little, their pediatrician had polio and he couldn’t walk very well. That’s why I wanted him as a doctor—because I felt like he would have a heart for pain and suffering. I’m attracted to people who have had a difficult history, and I thought that there’s probably more people out there like me. I just had to do it, so I did.
In clinic, you’re typically watched through a one way mirror. I noticed they weren’t watching my clinical skills—they were watching how many disfluencies I had. Talk about pressure. It was hard. I cried a few times, and I got mad, but I said I know I’m as good as anyone and I know I have a strength because of it, especially with parents and older students. I found that I really connected with high school students—they’re old enough for me to share my own experience.
I’ve had experiences on the ground in schools where I worked for 14 years. I had parents that had their high school students come back to me even though I worked in the grammar school because we had a relationship, and encouragement was really a gift that I was able to give them. I would meet with them at a local café.
My experience with that first professor was really hurtful. I’ll be honest, it was so hurtful because I’m in his office and I’m wanting to be strong. He’s saying these things to me, and it’s just so hurtful, so deep, that my larynx doesn’t move. I do sort of get his point because sometimes I have a tough day, and I’ll be in an IEP that has nothing to do with stuttering, and I have some disfluencies and I know it’s there. Everybody can see it. I usually don’t address it but once in a while I’ll tell the team, “I’m a stutterer myself—that’s why I went into this profession. Today I’m having a little bit more of a struggle. So that’s what you’re hearing. That’s what it is.” That is so hard to say—I took a long time to realize this, but I realized that stuttering carries with it the preconceived idea that you aren’t quite as smart, aren’t quite as sharp.
I really didn’t put those two together, but my younger brother who also stutters said, “Everybody thinks that you aren’t as smart because you stutter. That’s the part that’s really hard and kind of embarrassing.” And I realized that’s true, isn’t it? Almost like duh! My brother actually came and spoke in some of my classes when I was in grad school. He came to therapy at the campus clinic when I was in grad school as well. We now talk about it more often in the family. It’s okay to talk about this. It isn’t a hidden thing now. It isn’t really any more of a weakness than if we had diabetes, or any other physical need. We just need a tool box of strategies, courage, and support.
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