Former Wildcat on a Mission to Help Others With Speech Disorders
LEXINGTON, Ky. (July 7, 2021) — Beloved by Big Blue Nation, former University of Kentucky men’s basketball player Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is perhaps best remembered for his tireless work ethic and unselfish style of play, helping to lead the Wildcats to the NCAA National Championship in 2012.
Wildcat fans also found him memorable for his demeanor off the court — shy, humble, down to earth. But while at UK, Kidd-Gilchrist wasn’t just dealing with the usual pressures that come with being a prominent player on one of the best — and most televised — college basketball teams in the country. Behind the scenes, he was dealing with a serious communication disorder, one that affects roughly 1% of the population — stuttering.
Stuttering is a speech disorder that often begins in childhood. Early treatment can help some people, but for others it may last a lifetime. While stuttering can occur for a number of reasons, there is a strong genetic link in the development of the disorder, and Kidd-Gilchrist says he had a close relative who also struggled with stuttering.
“I first noticed I stuttered at the age of 10-11 years old,” Kidd-Gilchrist said. “I didn’t know what it was at the time. In my family, only my grandmother stuttered.”
It wasn’t until he was about 15 years old, he says, that he fully understood that he had a speech disorder. He avoided speaking to people outside his close social circle of family and friends, a task that became more difficult in high school as media took interest in his talents as a basketball player.
Recruited by UK head coach John Calipari, Kidd-Gilchrist was just 17 when he came to Kentucky. Being a Wildcat means living under intense scrutiny, with press conferences following every game and sports commentators speculating about your performance off and on the court. To help Kidd-Gilchrist better learn to manage his disorder in these circumstances, his mother worked with UK Athletics to ensure services were lined up for him when he arrived on campus.
While Kidd-Gilchrist kept his speech disorder under wraps during his time at UK, he’s become more open about his struggles in the years since. In the fall of 2020, he returned — virtually — to UK, hosting a webinar for UK College of Health Sciences faculty and students about his experiences as a person who stutters. He also spoke extensively of his therapy with UK HealthCare speech-language pathologist Meg Shake, who joined the webinar for a virtual reunion. The event was moderated by Anne Olson, chair of the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders within the UK College of Health Sciences.
“Speech-language pathology, like many professions that fall under the umbrella of health sciences, is a profession that is a unique combination of science and art,” Olson said. Speech language pathologists are health care professionals who work with people with communication disorders, using evidence-based practices to help their clients (the science) with creative ways to tailor therapy to each individual person (the art).
Shake, who was working on staff for the UK College of Health Sciences at the time, got the call for Kidd-Gilchrist’s therapy. Living in the heart of Wildcat country, she understood the level of scrutiny he would face. Before she began her career in speech-language pathology, Shake had even briefly worked in UK’s athletics department under famed former UK Athletics Director C.M. Newton, putting blue-and-white pom-pom shakers and Rick Pitino masks in the seats of Rupp Arena before games.
“Being a lifelong Lexingtonian and a UK fan, I knew he was going to be in a microscope,” Shake said. “I had to help him be as comfortable in that microscope as possible.”
The sounds of speech are produced through what Shake describes as “amazing choreography” between multiple systems of the body: respiratory (lungs), phonatory (the voice box), articulatory (the mouth) and resonance (cavities in the nose and throat known as the vocal tract). Combine that with the underlying thought processes that determine the words someone decides to say, it’s only natural that there are occasional glitches when people try to speak.
“There’s a tendency for all of us to fail in that coordination sometimes,” Shake said. “Stuttering is so multi-factorial, but it's also experiential. It's the way you think, the way you feel.”
For 10 months, Shake and Kidd-Gilchrist met every other week at the CATS tutoring lab on UK’s campus, forgoing the usual clinic location in order to maintain Kidd Gilchrist’s privacy and to give him a more peaceful therapeutic experience. Speech therapy isn’t about simply trying to “fix” a communication disorder — it involves helping clients accept their issues and finding ways to manage their disorder so they can improve their overall ability to communicate.
“The first day I met Michael, I said, ‘What’s your goal for therapy?’ and he said, ‘I don’t want anyone to know,’” said Shake. “And I really respected that because that’s where he was. But I also knew that we needed to work together to get him to a place where he would feel more comfortable if it was discovered.”
For Kidd-Gilchrist, his sessions with Shake at first felt like an extension of his schoolwork. However, the two quickly developed a strong bond, which helped boost his confidence.
“There were times I had walked into therapy, and I'm like, man, this is like class,” Kidd-Gilchrist said. “But she made it more and more like it was like I was part of her family … she helped me, in a tremendous way, to even embrace myself.”
“It’s a partnership between the therapist and client,” Shake said. “You meet people where they are.”
With this in mind, Shake met Kidd-Gilchrist where he was — figuratively and sometimes literally. Armed with the microphone from her kids’ Nintendo Wii — the only mic Shake said she could get her hands on — she would bring it to their sessions to help him become resensitized to being around a mic, something he had learned to avoid as media followed him in his high school days. Sometimes she’d just lay it on the table during their sessions, other times she’d meet Kidd-Gilchrist on the floor of Memorial Coliseum so they could simulate how a media interview might go.
“Those sessions introduced me to the world I was in at Kentucky and the world I was about to jump into in the NBA,” Kidd-Gilchrist said. “They helped my confidence. The mics weren’t as foreign to me and Meg helped that.”
In addition to working on motor speech therapy, Shake says one of the most important things the two worked on together is a strategy known as disclosure. In a nutshell, disclosure is simply telling other people that you stutter. It’s a way to give power back to the person who stutters, changing the dynamic in situations where they might feel a sense of helplessness.
“Many people who stutter will tell you that one of the most difficult moments is when you meet somebody for the first time, and you talk, and you see in that person their discovery that you stutter,” Shake said. “So disclosure allows the person who stutters to kind of free themselves up to stutter. It eliminates that stressful moment of recognition, and it kind of takes power away from the stuttering.”
The two worked on his disclosure statement at nearly every session, though Shake stresses that the words were Kidd-Gilchrist’s alone and she was there for support and help. With her Nintendo Wii mic, she would play mock reporter, asking him to comment on whether he had a stutter. With sports reporters already speculating about his speech as March Madness approached, she knew it was only a matter of time before he would be asked about it.
The night prior to the 2012 NCAA championship game, that time came. In front of a small group of reporters inside the Kentucky locker room at the New Orleans Superdome, he addressed the issue publicly for the first time.
“Here I was at the Final Four, and it was one of the biggest stages in sports and not just for basketball, but for who I am and where I come from,” Kidd-Gilchrist said. “I was ready to speak, and to speak up for myself. I was speaking up for myself for the first time ever, and why I was so hesitant to talk, and why at times I didn’t feel like talking. It was introducing me for me.”
Back in Kentucky, Shake was listening — in secret. Due to HIPAA patient privacy laws, she wasn’t allowed to tell her family that she was working with Kidd-Gilchrist, and would sometimes sneak into the bathroom with a radio to listen to the UK basketball postgame shows in case he would participate in the press conferences.
“I remember I listened to the interview, and then I read the interview online, and thought, oh my gosh, he gave a great answer,” Shake said. “And when I asked him about it later, I said, ‘How did you feel when they asked you about stuttering?’ and he said, ‘That was the easiest question they asked me!’”
After helping UK win its eighth championship title, Kidd-Gilchrist declared for the 2012 NBA draft, where he was the second overall draft pick and joined the Charlotte Bobcats. Though he says he was never really teased for his stuttering as a child, Kidd-Gilchrist says he did experience some teasing after he entered the NBA as an 18-year-old.
“I handled that like any kid would at that point in time,” he said. “I was a little rattled, a little afraid. But as I started understanding what I was put on this Earth for, all of that was just simply fine at the end of the day. And it took me a while to get there.”
In recent years, Kidd-Gilchrist has become more public about his stuttering and is focusing many of his efforts off the court into becoming an advocate for the stuttering community. He recently launched Change & Impact, a stuttering initiative focused on improving access to health care and expanding services and resources for those who stutter.
He also regularly appears as a guest speaker for the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at various colleges and universities, and camps and health care associations focused on stuttering. He is a strong supporter of the Stuttering Foundation’s “I Stutter Card,” a downloadable ID card that helps people who stutter identify themselves and educate others on the complex disorder, especially in moments where communication may be particularly difficult.
“So if you're at the doctor's office, for example and you can't get a word out, and they're like, ‘What's wrong with you?’ Give them the card,” he said. “Or at the airport, do the same thing. If I can't get a word, I'll give them the card.”
His webinar for the UK College of Health Sciences was just one small way he could give back to his alma mater while raising awareness around stuttering for a new generation of Wildcats.
“I was there nine years ago, and it seemed like yesterday I was enjoying myself and winning a national championship,” said Kidd-Gilchrist. “But that’s only part of me, you know? (I will) always be a voice for those adults, those kids, who stutter. I will go around and talk to different universities and organizations to always give hope.”
Olson says having public figures like Kidd-Gilchrist who are willing to talk candidly about their experiences is extremely valuable.
“By sharing his story, he’s saying, ‘Look, this is me. This is who I am, even at this level of professional basketball in the NBA,’’’ Olson said. “You can still be successful if you stutter. And I think that’s fantastic, because persons with disabilities need role models and need to see that they are not alone. Celebrity testimonials really help raise awareness so that other people understand what the condition is about and what might be done about it.”
With his personal experiences, his reputation as a hard worker, and his desire to help others, it’s no surprise that Kidd-Gilchrist has dedicated more of his time to raising awareness of communication disorders. Olson says that many of UK’s students in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders are drawn to the field both from personal experiences and a general desire to assist others.
“I read a lot of applications for students who want to go into communication disorders, and that’s really what it boils down to,” Olson said. “Many have had someone in their family who’s had a stroke or traumatic brain injury, or have had a learning disability, or stuttered. It’s a helping profession, and they want to help people. That’s where it starts.”
For students, the need for speech-language pathologists and audiologists also makes the field an attractive career choice. As Shake says, humans are communicative beings; it’s etched into the fabric of who we are — and there will always be a need to help others communicate effectively. Historically, UK students who graduate with a degree in the communication sciences and disorders program and choose to enter the job market have a 100% employment rate within a year of graduation.
“I’d like to thank Michael for his courage in discussing his stuttering in such an open forum and taking the time to virtually meet with our students,” said UK College of Health Sciences Dean Scott Lephart, Ph.D. “His work not only raises awareness of stuttering, which helps to reduce the stigma and advances the understanding of this disorder, but it also showcases the need for health professionals in this field and how they can truly have a lifelong impact on their clients.”
Speaking to the group of UK Health Sciences students last fall, Kidd-Gilchrist emphasized that last point, telling any future speech-language pathologists that their work has the ability to truly change someone’s life.
“I had a lot of tough days, a lot of rough days, and I still do,” Kidd-Gilchrist said. “Now I'm embracing who I am, and also where I come from, and what had inspired me. And that's a hard credit to Ms. Shake. In the past, I had therapists in high school, in middle school … but I think for myself, nobody was as good as her … I was heard, you know?”
To learn more about Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s initiative and progress, follow Change & Impact on Instagram at @change_and_impact.
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