Blank Foundation makes $20 million grant to fund stuttering program in TexasArthur Blank (Special: Arnica Spring Photography)
By Maria Saporta
Throughout his life, Arthur Blank has struggled with being a stutterer.
Blank, owner of the Atlanta Falcons and co-founder of the Home Depot, did not let his stuttering get in the way of his achievements. But Blank has always known it’s a hard affliction for many to live with and overcome.
Now he’s giving back with what the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation calls “his most personal gift” that he’s ever made.
The Blank Foundation announced Monday that it is awarding a $20 million legacy grant to establish the Arthur M. Blank Center for Stuttering Education and Research at the University of Texas in Austin.
It will be an overarching center to expand the vision and work of Dr. Courtney Byrd, who founded and directs the Michael and Tami Lang Stuttering Institute, the Dr. Jennifer and Emanuel Bodner Developmental Stuttering Laboratory and the Dealey Family Foundation Stuttering Clinic in the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin.
The gift follows the $200 million grant he made last week to the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, the largest single gift the foundation has ever made.
In an interview in August before the publication of his book “Good Company,” Blank spoke at length about what is was like to be a stutterer, saying that it afflicts about 1 percent of the world’s population and up to four million people in the United States.
“Most people who stutter don’t raise their hands,” said Blank, who talked about the work being done by Dr. Byrd at the University of Texas in Austin. “It’s one of the leading centers in research and education on stuttering and a great clinical practice.”
Blank said he was interested in helping her make it a national program.
“What stuttering does is that it puts a fence around somebody,” Blank said. “It really puts them almost in a prison in a sense, in terms of expressing themselves.”
Blank said he was fortunate because his mother told him what he had to say was important, and that people would listen to him if there was real value in what he was saying.
That sentiment “frees people up to be the most they can be,” Blank said. “It’s great to become fluent, but that’s not what the focus is. The focus is that you understand what you have to contribute is important. And people need to hear what you have to say.”
The Blank Center, which will be led by Byrd, will advance understanding about the nature and effective treatment of stuttering, globally scale evidence-based programming to treat children, teenagers and adults, and create a pipeline of expert clinicians and researchers to make quality, effective treatment accessible to all people.
“The moment I met Dr. Byrd, I was immediately struck by her intellect and her life-long commitment to advancing the field of stuttering, which she translated into extraordinary proposals that captured her vision to meaningfully impact the stuttering community in the United States and beyond,” Blank said in a release.
“Through her impressive research and dedicated practice towards stuttering, I know she will change the world in this area and help as many human beings as she possibly can,” he added. “She is the perfect person to lead the charge because she’s hard-wired now in her beliefs, and you see it in her results, the participants, the clinical work that she’s doing, the research, the education, all of which we will be connected to through the establishment of this center.”
Over the 10-year life of the legacy grant, the Blank Center will achieve an increase in the number of persons served annually, as well as students and clinicians trained to serve people who stutter. During the next decade, satellite centers will be established nationally, and Byrd’s signature intensive treatment program, Camp Dream. Speak. Live., will be launched in 10 new countries.
“Moody College is the only academic institution in the nation where there is such significant infrastructure and support for stuttering research and treatment, and this legacy grant will further set Moody apart as a leader in this underserved, often misunderstood area,” said Jay Bernhardt, Dean of Moody College.
Byrd’s treatment model targets core communication competencies, such as maintaining eye contact, particularly during moments of stuttering, using voice and gestures to emphasize meaning, and engaging listeners with positive demeanor.
Also critical to the treatment is mindfulness, acceptance and self-compassion, as well as learning how to share that you are a person who stutters in a way that minimizes stereotype threat and stuttering on purpose to promote desensitization to stuttering.
Byrd, her clinical treatment team and undergraduate- and graduate-level researchers have served more than 1,500 children, teenagers and adults who stutter. Their quantitative and qualitative outcomes indicate: Increased communication competence and confidence across general speaking situations and situations unique to their everyday life, increased positive perception in their ability to establish peer-to-peer relationships, increased ability to understand, educate and advocate for themselves and others who stutter, increased societal insight and acceptance of stuttering, increased mindfulness, resilience, self-compassion, and hope for their future, and increased quality of life.
“Our focus is on the person, not on the stuttering,” Byrd said. “We’re teaching people as young as 3 years of age to adults over the age of 90, you can communicate effectively, and you can do so even if you continue to stutter.”