A Case of Stuttering Imperils His Degree

Philadelphia Inquirer, November 11, 1998

By Henry Goldman, Inquirer Staff Writer

NEW YORK - Peter Reitzes, 26, grew up in Wilmington with a stutter so severe that he was teased, tormented and, ultimately, afraid to talk at all. Today he still stutters, but less so. And more than anything else, he wants to work in the field of speech therapy, where some of the most notable practitioners also stutter.

Reitzes appeared to be on his way when he was accepted early in 1997 as a graduate student in speech pathology at New York University. Then, nine months later, administrators told him he could not participate in the clinical program required for graduation unless his speech was stutter-free. Now his academic future is in doubt and the tight-knit world of speech pathology is watching closely.

Stuttering is a lifelong affliction that can be modified and minimized with effective therapy, but, speech pathologists say, it cannot be eliminated or cured.

So when Reitzes received the news from NYU, he vowed to fight. First he tried to resolve the conflict with a series of meetings. When the University wouldn't budge, he hired a lawyer.

"They accepted me knowing that I stutter, they cashed my tuition checks, and all of a sudden they put up a barrier that if I fail, I'm out," he said last week.

His experience with NYU has become something of a cause celebre among speech pathologists across the country. Fund-raisers to pay his attorneys' fees either have been held or are planned in cities from Philadelphia to San Francisco.

That support has resulted in increased scrutiny of the case. And the scrutiny appears to have led NYU to retreat -- somewhat ambiguously -- from its previous position. Also indicating that compromise might now be possible is the recently announced resignation of Phyllis Tureen, the speech department's chairman, for reasons university officials say are unrelated to the controversy. Tureen had been adamant about maintaining the requirement.

Reitzes, however, has heard none of this from the university, and he refuses to declare victory until he sees the policy rescinded in writing.

"I want a good education, I'm academically qualified, and if I'm going to stutter occasionally, I've learned that it's OK," he said. "I refuse to be driven out."

Reitzes applied to NYU in February 1997 after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, where he had majored in psychology and received A's in almost all his courses. In his personal statement, he discussed his lifelong struggle with stuttering.

His speech therapist at that time, Phillip Schneider, told the admissions committee that Reitzes was "extremely articulate" and had successfully lectured Schneider's graduate students. Schneider wrote that Reitzes "will have no difficulty completing the academic and clinical requirements of graduate studies. He possesses the personality traits that are associated with caring, effective professionals."

But on Nov. 5, 1997, after he had been enrolled for two months, Reitzes was called into a meeting with four school officials, including Tureen and associate dean Patricia Carey.

That's when he says they informed him that he would have to complete a "pass/fail" fluency test before he would be accepted into the clinical program required for a master's degree.

"I know you are particularly concerned about the Department's definition of speech fluency and the Department's expectations for being able to move into clinical practicum when the time comes," Carey wrote to him a week later. "Communicative skills must be free from any identifiable disorders. In general, speech must be free of sound and syllable repetitions, prolongations, and blocks."

Not long after that, Reitzes hired Jonathan Ben-Asher, a lawyer who specializes in cases of alleged discrimination concerning disabilities.

"My earliest memories are of being afraid to speak because I stuttered so bad," said Reitzes, whose fluency has improved to the point where his speech is impaired only by occasional halts and hesitations at the beginning of some words.

"As a kid, I would refuse to say my name on the first day of school, or give the wrong answer in class if I knew I would stutter less. Girls made rhymes about me and people teased me relentlessly. My parents were told to ignore it and it would get better. That, and my fear of talking, just made my stuttering worse."

Now, Reitzes said, he felt betrayed by NYU. "They were the ones who were supposed to be telling me I had potential, not telling me that I couldn't help people because I stuttered. I felt I had to fight for my right to an education," he said.

In two letters, Ben-Asher asked the school to change its policy and warned of a possible lawsuit if it did not.

NYU's lawyers replied that the school's policy was not discriminatory. They also argued that Reitzes' concerns were premature because he had not yet agreed to the evaluation that would determine whether he would be accepted into the clinical program.

Last week, in a response to a reporter's inquiry, NYU officials disavowed Carey's letter to Reitzes and declared they had never intended to create a pass/fail barrier to participation in the clinic.

University spokesman John Beckman cited confidentiality laws in refusing to discuss Reitzes case in detail, although he called Carey's letter "a mistake" and said the conflict had been "blown out of proportion" because of "a massive miscommunication."

He did, however, continue to assert that "students have to be able to control any speech disorders before they cam work with the people who come to the clinics for help. We believe that patients and their parents would expect no less than that standard."

"It's unusual in this day and age to hear of such a speech requirement," said Peter Ramig, 52, professor of speech language pathology at the University of Colorado, who noted that one of the pioneers in the field, Charles Van Riper, had a severe stutter.

So do many of the most-accomplished speech therapists in the United States -- including Ramig, who is a fellow of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Ramig has written dozens of books and articles, and he contributed to the book Advice to Those Who Stutter, written by 28 university professors, heads of clinics, researchers and psychiatrists -- all of whom stutter.

Ramig, whose stutter is now almost imperceptible, said he suffered from severe stuttering and head jerks until he found help at age 25. "Someone who stutters can be an excellent role model," he said. "My whole life was turned around by therapists who stuttered."

Woodruff Starkweather of Temple University, Reitzes' speech therapist, characterizes Reitzes' stutter as mild. He said that some of his Philadelphia students are working with national advocacy groups to raise funds to support Reitzes if he sues NYU.

Amy Danielson, who heads NYU's clinical speech therapy program, said last week the school never intended to use its evaluation process as a barrier to admission. "Our ultimate goal is for students to be successful," she said. "No one has been denied entry . . . because of any kind of communicative impairment."

Indeed, Danielson said, "individuals who have received speech therapy for any kind of disorder many times make the most effective clinicians."

Reitzes is still waiting to hear something. "They're the ones not talking," he said. "I find it strange for a communications department to have such difficulty communicating. Why did I have to go through a year of this? And why did they decide their old policy, which they stuck to no matter how hard I tried to get them to change it, is now garbage?"



Stutterer wins fight with college: He can join a speech pathology program at New York University

Philadelphia Inquirer, November 20, 1998

By Henry Goldman, Inquirer Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- After fighting for more than a year, lifelong stutterer Peter Reitzes won his battle with New York University this week when school officials dropped a requirement that students in its speech pathology program be stutter-free.

In a three-page letter to Reitzes, academic dean Thomas James disavowed the earlier policy and assured Reitzes he was eligible to participate in the school's clinical program, which is required to obtain a master's degree.

"From all accounts, you are making good progress as you work toward the goal of completing the master's program," James wrote. "That being the case, I see no problem currently arising . . . in relation to your progress through the program."

The university changed its position as Reitzes' case attracted attention throughout the tightly knit community of speech pathologists across the country. The controversy also attracted recent interest in the news media, and the university faced the threat of a lawsuit.

Reitzes' fight with NYU began a year ago when he was informed by associate dean Patricia Carey that he would not be accepted into the clinical program unless he could show that he could speak without impairment.

"Communicative skills must be free from any identifiable disorders," Carey wrote him. "In general, speech must be free of sound and syllable repetitions, prolongations, and blocks." This language has now been disavowed. James wrote that the language had not been "intended to convey anything other than the positive and enabling framework" designed to help students succeed in the program.

Reitzes, 26, of Wilmington, said the university had refused to scrap the earlier requirement for more than a year, during which he tried to get faculty members and administrators to meet with him and negotiate a compromise. At one point, he said, a university official told him to hire a lawyer if he did not like the requirement.

He did. Now, Reitzes says, he wants the university to pay his attorney's fees, which he estimates at $12,000. "I want to be exhilarated, but I'm depressed that the whole thing had to happen," Reitzes said yesterday. "I wish they had talked to me and treated me like a human being from the beginning a year ago. I wish they hadn't told me to get a lawyer, because now I'm in debt. I think they owe me for that."

NYU spokesman John Beckman said he was glad the university appeared to have resolved its policy dispute with Reitzes, but neither he nor attorneys for the school had any answers about whether the university might reimburse Reitzes for his legal fees. Reitzes said he learned about the no-stuttering policy after he had enrolled in the school. He said the university had accepted him knowing that he stuttered.

Several of his role models in the field, he said, were noted speech pathologists who also stuttered. Reitzes' speech pathologist, Woodruff Starkweather, described Reitzes' stutter as mild and improving. Starkweather, who teaches at Temple University, was one of several speech pathologists who had begun to organize support for Reitzes among colleagues around the country.

"This is a complete win," Reitzes' attorney, Jonathan Ben-Asher, said yesterday. "NYU is saying that the policy was wrong, and that he should be in the clinical program. It's great that they did it, and it's terrible that it took so long. He should not have had to go through a year of stress and adversity before they got to this position."

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