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Lazaro Arbos isn’t going to be the next “American Idol,” but he did accomplish a dream: he inspired. The Naples-area resident, who was voted off the show on Thursday night, is being lauded by stuttering community for his bravery.
Richard Hudson, a work-at-home operations analyst living in Tallahassee who has stuttered for most of his life, said via email that he voted for Arbos on “American Idol” because Arbos “had the guts to put himself out there.”
“He had the courage to be vulnerable in front of millions,” wrote Hudson, 32. “Lazaro is a rock star in my eyes because he will not let stuttering stop him from going after his dream.”
Arbos, who was born in Cuba and moved to Southwest Florida when he was 10 years old, has an unmistakable stutter when he speaks but it disappears when he sings.
His mixture of vocal talent, background story and personality made him one of the fan favorites on “American Idol” this season.
The popular Fox show used Arbos’ emotional audition in Chicago in front of the judges — that includes Arbos’ personal idol Mariah Carey — as part of its season-preview advertising blitz.
Arbos became an overnight celebrity after stumbling to pronounce his song selection —“Bridge Over Troubled Water” — only to wow the judges with his rendition of the Simon and Garfunkel classic.
Not all of the publicity Arbos got was positive — his performances were harshly criticized at times — but he made it to the Top 6 and will be part of the “American Idol” tour this summer.
Arbos’ time in the national spotlight also brought more attention to the stuttering community, according to Jane Fraser, president of the Stuttering Foundation, a non-profit that her father founded in 1947.
“What I think is terrific is that it’s given everybody in the field of stuttering an opportunity to educate people,” Fraser said.
Roughly three million Americans stutter, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.
Stuttering is a communication disorder characterized by “effortful speech production, such as hesitations, repetitions and prolongations of sounds or words,” according to Lisa Scott, director of clinical education at Florida State University’s School of Communication Science and Disorders.
Since 1997, Scott has specialized in working with people who stutter, both through conducting research and providing clinical service.
“For most people who stutter it’s not just what is happening in their mouth, with trying to get the words out. It’s also how they view their communication and how they feel about it,” Scott said.
She said some people who stutter, even slightly, might be afraid to speak.
“With Lazaro, here’s a guy who a pretty significant issue going on yet he is a very confident guy,” she said. “He has a hard time talking but he talks anyway.”
There are a few theories on why people stutter when they speak and not when they sing.
Some say it could because speech uses the left side of the brain and music uses the right side of the brain. Others say singing changes a person’s breathing and provides lyrics, making it easier for people who stutter to pace themselves.
“There’s no universally accepted theory as to why this happens. It’s considered a phenomenon,” said Alain Lopez, a speech-language pathologist who owns Bilingual Speech Language Pathology Center Inc. in Fort Myers.
Many of the children Lopez works with come from Hispanic homes like Arbos’ where the primary language spoken is Spanish.
And like Arbos, Lopez came to the United States from Cuba when he was 10 years old and did not know English when he first arrived either.
“It was difficult because I couldn’t communicate. So I would imagine how much more difficult it (was) for Lazaro because he was aware he had a fluency disorder,” Lopez said.
Some research suggests stuttering is “probably more prevalent in the bilingual population, however it’s not concrete,” Lopez said.
Arbos is spreading awareness about stuttering to young “American Idol” viewers, according to Lopez.
“I think he’s a good role model for other individuals who might be in similar situations, who might be hesitant to follow their dreams,” he said.
Scott said she is leading about eight people through speech therapy right now, and they often discuss Arbos’ courage.
“If he can go on ‘American Idol’ in front a national TV audience, what does it mean for you when you’re sitting in class and you need to raise your hand?” she said.
And speech-language pathologists email her about him, too.
“Everybody is talking about him,” Scott said.
The extra attention has helped the Stuttering Foundation in its outreach, according to Fraser. She said the calls for help to the foundation have more than quadrupled.
“It’s really thrilling to be able to reach people,” she said. “It’s opened up a new world.”
And the worlds merged in March when Tom Christopoul, the chairman of Rita’s Italian Ice, presented Fraser with a $10,000 donation to the Stuttering Foundation on Arbos’ behalf. The event took place in front of Arbos’ parents and other supporters at the Naples Rita’s store where he worked before joining “American Idol.”
Arbos told the Daily News soon after the event that he was pleased with the donation because he has a long-term goal of opening a clinic where people who stutter and who do not have health insurance can get treated for the speech impediment.
“The fact that they donated means a lot to me,” Arbos said.
He said he has always wanted to inspire others to keep following their dreams and that he gets online messages of thanks from people who stutter and who don’t.
“That’s a really cool thing,” Arbos said.