Vivian Sheehan: Tribute To A Legacy

Gail Wilson Lew Speech Pathology

Events & Info

When I recently attended the memorial service for my friend, mentor, and colleague of the past 17 years, Vivian Sheehan, I had many memories.  I remembered how in 1990 I heard about Vivian, having been an assistant to speech-language pathologist, Ken Knepflar. I used to hear Ken talk about Vivian and how much he respected her and the Sheehan Stuttering Clinic at UCLA.  Inspired, I called Vivian and told her that I would like to come and volunteer at the beginning group for UCLA.  She said, "Sure, come join us." That started my association with Vivian: going once a week to UCLA at 7:00 PM and ending at 10:00 PM.   I volunteered there for approximately 1 semester and that semester was most valuable to me in that I got a chance to watch Vivian, the master, interact and encourage her stuttering clients.  Vivian always had a manner of being polite, but direct.  Clients often soaked in every word she said.  I really admired Vivian's ability to know when a person was substituting one word for another.  She had an uncanny ability to listen carefully, recognize how they were speaking, and what they were saying.  Vivian had the talent of knowing when and how to say just the right thing to a client, a group of slps, or parents.  There were not wasted words with Vivian.  She always had the respect of everyone who knew her. 


A few months after the UCLA group I asked Vivian to join me in helping me start the One Day Workshop for Children Who Stutter and Their Families at Pasadena City College, and she said "yes."  Since then, there have been approximately 12 years of workshops in which Vivian addressed parents and slps.  That would come out to 36 workshops, as the Pasadena City College workshops took place three times annually.  Neither Vivian nor I ever received a speaker's fee or monetary compensation for our time, travel and efforts.  However,  that was never an issue for Vivian.  Like myself, we enjoyed the process of knowing that we would be helping people who came to the workshop feeling helpless, and at the end, seeing them leave feeling empowered. 


One of the stories that Vivian told at one of the workshops was about a little boy who was stuttering and he happened to have an older brother.  Vivian said to the parents, sibling and brother, I want you to come in and I want you to talk to each other. She observed the dynamics of this family.  Later, she met with the parents and told them that for the next week to spend most of their time and attention with the older boy who did not stutter. She called the family after about 2 weeks and asked them how were things going.  She found that the younger sibling who stuttered had actually had a dramatic decrease in his stuttering.  She later learned that the older boy had been upset that the younger boy was getting all the attention and would make the siblings life miserable when the parents weren't looking, thus creating more anxiety and more stuttering for that little boy.  We learned immediately as she spoke and educated all the speech pathologists that family dynamics can enhance or decrease fluency.


Vivian also talked about an adult client who had a secondary behavior of hitting herself when she stuttered.  This lady slapped her own face every time she had a severe block.  Vivian began to see her individually and quickly got rid of the face-slapping.  We were amazed to find out how she did this.  Apparently, every time the woman slapped herself, Vivian slapped her own self, and this quickly extinguished this behavior.  This woman probably saw Vivian as a mother figure and did not want Vivian to hurt herself.


Vivian was also one to give her opinion even if it was against the thinking of the day when many were more prone to teach fluency enhancing skills.  For example, Vivian states from her book, Easy Stuttering,  " You should just change how  you stutter- with ease, acceptance, eye contact with the listener, and continued communication.  Get a feeling of success from not avoiding.  Finally, never try to be fluent.  Easy speech comes with acceptance of the role of a stutterer and on becoming a good one.  Easier speech fluency will be a natural result- with time!  Do not expect instant miracles.  Remember, you are changing habits that developed over a lifetime." 


Vivian did not like to hear the word "control" when talking about stuttering.  She used the word "manage."  The following were her own definitions:

Control: If you try to control stuttering you are likely to be suppressing it, covering it up.

Block:  There is no block to keep you from going ahead, only your own crutches and efforts to avoid.

Guilt over fear: You must expect to experience fear during therapy and not guilt that results from covering it up.  Experiencing fear is the only way you can progress. Vivian used to say, "You don't overcome stuttering, you wear it out."   

Easy Stuttering:  Avoidance-Reduction Therapy, More than 50 years of The Sheehan Method, 2005  This can be purchased on- line in an electronic book form.


What is the legacy of Vivian Sheehan?

In my opinion, Vivian would like you to remember the following:

For youth who stutter:  You can be an effective communicator!  My husband was a severe stutterer at one time and he learned to manage his stuttering so that it practically all went away.  You too can learn to manage your stuttering.

For parents:  Listen to what your child says, not how he says it.  Show a sincere interest in his thoughts.  Let him know how important he is to you.  Build confidence in the child, not confidence he won't stutter, but confidence that he can communicate even though he stutters.


For Adults who stutter:  Your stuttering is something you do, not something that happens to you.  It is your behavior, not a condition.  There are mistakes you can correct with a little self-study and courage.


For wives of husbands who stutter: Stop making his phone calls and talking for him.

(The wife would usually be the first one to set up the initial visits and Vivian would politely say, "Have your husband call me back and make the appointment.") 

For speech and language pathologists:  Seek out informative workshops about stuttering and learn about the emotional side of it.


Vivian will be definitely missed by me! I will miss her support she had for me during all the workshops she attended.  I will miss her devotion to her profession and people who stutter.  I will miss her way of giving people assurance that things can be worked out if you try!  Most of all I will miss her ability to genuinely care about people! 


Vivian's gardener spoke at her memorial service.  Yes, her gardener!  He held back tears as he spoke about how she transformed his life and how she was his angel.  No, he was not a person who stuttered.  He first encountered Vivian about 13 years ago when he was working for an older gardener who was taking care of Vivian's yard at the time.  Vivian was impressed with the young man's work and one day pulled him aside and encouraged him to start working for himself and that she would be his first customer.  Now years later he has a successful gardening business and owns his own house!  He went on to say that his English was not good and she would say, "Who cares! Just talk."  That sounded so similar to her stuttering advice.


For those who would like to learn more about Joe and Vivian Sheehan's legacy I recommend you get the following DVD that has two documentaries, One, Joseph G. Sheehan's Message to A Stutterer and two, No Words To Say, a film of Vivian interacting with a group of people who stutter from UCLA.  To obtain this DVD for $14.95 log on to


Another valuable resource I recommend is : Easy Stuttering:  Avoidance-Reduction Therapy, More than 50 years of The Sheehan Method, (2005) This can be purchased on- line in an electronic book form for $9.98.


Gail Wilson Lew

ASHA Board Certified Fluency Specialist

Private Practice

Adjunct professor, California State University, Northridge

( 1917- 2008 )