For most of her 26 years, Mandy Cowles struggled to communicate. Cowles has a serious stutter and has dealt with the frustration and embarrassment of being unable to say a simple sentence.
"For anyone who doesn't have the problem, it's like you totally start tensing up, you feel your face freezing up. It contorts and twists and it's humiliating," said Cowles.
Her stuttering began when she was just a toddler growing up in Nebraska and got worse as she grew older. Speech therapy didn't help and, despite being a bright girl, her teachers put her in special education classes, shattering Cowles' self-confidence.
Her mother, Dyanna Austin, recalled the ridicule her daughter endured. "When she was very young, we had neighbors, when she'd go outside, they'd say, 'There's the little retarded girl. We don't want to play with her,'" said Austin.
Dark Days in High School
The teasing became worse in high school. "I was the person who the popular guys, like the guys on the football team, would ask me out as a joke," said Cowles.
The cruel taunts of classmates became so unbearable, Cowles left school after 10th grade. In an essay, she wrote about her darkest moments: "I believe high school was the worst time in my life. I would sit in my room, 16 years old, no dream for the future. I wanted to end my life right there."
"I wanted everything, all the pain, everything, to just go away," said Cowles. "I just hated myself. I didn't see myself through my own eyes. I saw myself through other people's eyes and how they told me I was."
Cowles has fought back from that dark place and now she is hoping a device called the SpeechEasy will change her life.
Device Brings New Hope
Previous research has shown that speaking in unison with another person inhibits stuttering, so the SpeechEasy device changes how the stutterer hears their own voice. The device fits into the canal of one ear. When the stutterer speaks, the SpeechEasy alters the pitch of their voice and delays the sound by just milliseconds, which seems to trick the brain into thinking that another person is speaking as well.
After writing an essay about her difficulties with stuttering, Mandy received the device as a gift from SpeechEasy as part of its National Outreach Program.
In a dramatic demonstration of how the SpeechEasy works, Cowles appeared live on "Good Morning America," along with her mother and Rebecca Snyder, a speech language pathologist who fitted Cowles with the device.
Snyder says the device doesn't work for everyone, but about 85 percent of those who try it can be helped, with fluency improved by about 50 to 90 percent.
Without the SpeechEasy, Cowles had difficulty finishing a sentence or being understood. Reading a sentence from a book was a tortured experience for her. But after inserting the SpeechEasy, Cowles was able to carry on a conversation easily, showing hardly any trace of a stutter at all.
"This is the biggest turning point in my life. This is the biggest thing that has ever happened to me," said Cowles.
Her mother agreed. "I have prayed for this and hoped and waited for a moment like this for a very long time," said Austin.
For Cowles, the moment marked a new beginning and new hopes for the future. Her goal is to go back to school and become a counselor helping troubled kids.
"It's like all those years of praying, and I have to be honest, I was like, 'God, where are you?'" said Cowles. "And he was like, 'I heard you -- here.'"
For more information about the SpeechEasy device, visit www.speecheasy.com