HAILSHAM: Film puts spotlight on Starfish Project

Anne Blight
Anne Blight

AWARD-WINNING film The King’s Speech looks set to sweep the boards at next month’s Oscars ceremony.

Based on a true story, the film stars Colin Firth as King George VI who overcame a severe stammer thanks to the help of unorthodox speech therapist Lionel Logue.

But away from the limelight, non-profit making programme the Starfish Project, near Hailsham, has helped more than 1,500 stammerers to control their speech over the last 12 years, using the same techniques shown in the film.

Set up by speech expert Anne Blight (pictured), from Ridgewood, the speech therapy project now sees people come from across the globe to the Boship Farm Hotel in Lower Dicker, in order to attend her intensive three day courses.

Following the success of The King’s Speech, project founder Anne wants to improve public awareness of the problems surrounding stammering and inform sufferers there is hope.

“Everyone needs to communicate and for the one per cent plus of the population who has a stammer, they have got this huge hurdle,” she said. “People can fill in a job application and come across as being competent in terms of qualifications, but everybody has got to be seen and heard in an interview and that, for people with a stammer is the hardest thing.

“Stammering is the butt of many a joke. It infuriates me. We don’t laugh at any other disability,” she said.

Based on the same techniques featured in the film, the three-day intensive course teaches users to gain control of their speech by using a different type of breathing, known as costal breathing.

“Every single person who stammers can sing, because they sing on a different breath called the costal breath,” said Anne. “That’s the breath that you can yawn on. Bearing in mind everyone can sing and shout without stammering it stands to reason we can teach people to speak on the same breath. That’s why when people who stammer get angry, they don’t stammer. But we couldn’t have people singing, shouting or swearing as in the film,” she said.

Putting five basic principles together, Anne worked with a friend who had a stammer to create a pilot course.

“It took three days and at the end of the three days, she had fantastic control over her speech. That gave me the impetus to carry on,” she said. “I don’t want to give people false hope. What I want is for people to learn the technique and use it to push out of their comfort zone.”

The Starfish Project now runs 11 courses a year, including two courses for young people aged from 12 to 16.

One of the most crucial aspects of the course means past students come back and teach the techniques to new people.

“Success to one gentleman was being able to go home and order a Chinese meal over the telephone for his family,” said Anne. “Success to another, who was a postman, meant he was able to pursue his dream job. He was highly intelligent but delivering letters meant he didn’t have to speak. All he ever wanted to do was be a teacher and now he is.

“Nine years ago a young man came from a family of airline pilots. When I asked him what he would like to achieve, he said, ‘to fly planes, but I never will’.

“After three months of using the technique, he went on to start his pilot training. Then one day I got a call saying, ‘Anne this is Captain Penfold.’ If he had been my own son I couldn’t have been more proud. He now flies 747s all over the world.”

However ultimately, Anne believes people are responsible for their own recovery. “People who come to the course come with 110 per cent commitment. You come taking responsibility for your own recovery.

“If you want to stop smoking, you’ve got to stop lighting cigarettes. They have got to make a change in the way they think about themselves - not as stammerers but as recovering stammerers.

“They have got to go out and face the public and all the feared situations they have had before.”

r The next course at the Boship Farm Hotel is January 26-28. For more details email mail@starfishproject.co.uk or visit www.starfishproject.co.uk.