Profile: An Extreme Life Makeover
Canadian member with severe stutter turns a corner at age 60.
By Helen Harrison
Photo Caption: Once seriously hampered by a stuttering problem, Kier Barker now gives motivational speeches to teenagers and nonprofit groups.
For 56 years, Kier Barker lived in a world of despair and futility, his days shrouded by a severe stuttering problem. But today he is a new man, one whose life is lit with hope and opportunity. Toastmasters played a major role in this transformation, as it helped Barker work through his stuttering difficulties and develop communication skills – and confidence – late in life.
Barker’s change started four years ago, when he was introduced to a fluency device, called a SpeechEasy, which helps people learn to manage their stuttering. He saw progress and a few months later joined the Northumberland Toastmasters club in Cobourg, Ontario, Canada.
“With each successive speech, he had fewer lapses into stuttering,” says Bill Netherton, Barker’s club mentor. “It seemed he learned to use the device more effectively as he progressed through the Toastmasters program.” Netherton says Barker now inspires his fellow club members and says Barker’s “sense of humor, colored with a hint of irony, adds to his strong delivery and honest, matter-of-fact presentation.”
Barker, who has earned a Competent Communicator award, says the support and camaraderie of the club has given him “an extreme life makeover.”
The Cobourg resident was born with spina bifida. He had minimal feeling from the waist down, and no power or strength to be able to stand. However, he was fitted with braces and crutches and eventually learned to walk. At age 4, Barker developed a severe stutter. Whenever he wanted to speak, his breathing patterns somehow crossed him up; he couldn’t exhale that flow of air that enables one to speak. As his lungs continued to fill, his chest became wracked with pain and his face contorted as he gasped with strangled sounds, until his body finally triggered a release of the pent-up air. This process would repeat again and again until he was left physically and emotionally exhausted.
Bit by bit Barker was enveloped in the lonely world of those who stutter.
His stuttering problem only heightened in school. Barker says his high school teachers became so frustrated waiting for him to express his ideas that they refused to let him participate in class discussions. Eventually the guidance counselor suggested he quit school and get a job.
He was able to obtain training in air conditioning and heating design, but over the years, although his many bosses were pleased with his work, he was let go time and time again because of his difficulty communicating with others. Even in his volunteer work, his stuttering proved a hindrance. At age 35, he was deemed unemployable and finally agreed to sign up for disability pension. Although he kept busy serving his community in several capacities, Barker wanted to work and feel like a contributing member of society.
First Signs of Hope
In the spring of his 60th year, his sister Donna saw a TV show about the SpeechEasy device and was eager for him to meet with a speech pathologist about it. Tired of trying one therapy after another over the years, Barker was more than skeptical about such a meeting. “Isn’t a pathologist someone who studies the dead?” he thought. However, Donna’s eagerness made him agree to attend the appointment with her. Barker’s first test with this fluency device showed amazing results: 93 percent improvement. It was his first sign of hope in 56 years. “A voice inside me told me that if I could get this device, my life would be totally changed,” recalls Barker.
The local Rotary Club helped him purchase the SpeechEasy, and Barker then spent eight weeks in speech therapy, most of it spent unlearning the bad habits he had developed over the years in an attempt to cope. A local newspaper did a front-page story on Barker, and he was invited to talk to a couple of community groups. Around that time he saw an advertisement for the Northumberland Toastmasters club. He went to his first meeting, and although feeling nervous, Kier felt warmly welcomed. He was given much encouragement and support, and before long he was participating in the various club meeting roles.
In his Ice Breaker, Barker talked of how he was finally liberated from years of being unable to communicate well with other people. Club members were clearly moved. They note that Barker’s confidence and enthusiasm steadily grew as he gave more speeches.
“At first, when Kier would speak, his face grew red, there was a quiver in his voice and he would often repeat what he had just said,” says Northumberland member Dale Bryant. “Like most new speakers, Kier seemed to be in a survival mode for his first couple of speeches, but unlike many new speakers, who would cut their speeches short, he tended to go on longer than the time that was given to him.”
Barker playfully acknowledges his propensity for long presentations: “After 60 years of being very hesitant to speak, my greatest challenge is to finish before the bell.”
As he finally became comfortable expressing himself, Barker felt like his life was just beginning and was determined to get a job. After submitting more than 100 resumes, he was hired as a telemarketer. Armed with his Toastmasters training, he forged ahead with his work. “For a person who stutters, one of the most difficult things to do is to talk on the phone,” says Barker, “but I make hundreds of calls every day.”
A prime example of how it’s never too late to make a dramatic turnaround in life, Barker now gives motivational speeches to teenagers and others, urging them to reach for their dreams. He has been a keynote speaker for nonprofits, including two student-leadership camps, and has shared his story with hundreds of high school students. Jeff Kawzenuk, the principal of a high school where Barker spoke, recalls how his story of perseverance captivated the students: “They applauded him for his will to achieve and succeed in life.”
For more information about Kier Barker, visit www.kierbarker.com.
Helen Harrison is a songwriter, speaker and freelance writer. She is the creator and director of Kid’s Company, an after-school program running in Stratford, Ontario, Canada. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.