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World’s largest gathering of stutterers coming July 4th

Kenny Koroll | provided photo

The other children’s cruel taunts: the mocking stutter, the gasping for breath, the twitching face.

None of that schoolyard stuff bothered Kenny Koroll the way a rejection for a job he knew he could do — and do well — did 16 years ago, when he was told he wasn’t qualified because he stutters.

Koroll, who lives in Arlington Heights, went home to his apartment, gulped down two beers and a bottle of sleeping pills. He began to put pen to paper.

“I was about half way through the letter to my mom, when I said, ‘Why am I doing this to myself?’ And I called 911,” Koroll, 44, recalled this week.

Koroll will head south Wednesday a much happier man, joining some 800 or so fellow stutterers, in what is billed as the “world’s largest gathering of people who stutter.” The National Stuttering Association’s annual conference at the Sheraton Grand Chicago, which runs through July 8, is in its 34th year.

“The NSA’s motto is, ‘If you stutter, you’re not alone.’ And you feel it. There’s something magical that happens when you’re surrounded by people who are like yourself,” said Annie Bradberry, a keynote speaker at the event and a past executive director of the NSA.

About 3 million Americans stutter, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. The condition occurs most often in children between the ages of 2 and 6, and is far more common in boys than girls, according to the agency. About 75 percent of children recover from stuttering, but for many, it’s a lifelong issue. There is no known cure, although a variety of therapies can help.

Koroll, who is the director of construction safety training for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, recalls being sometimes teased as a child. But two things worked in his favor: He went to a small Catholic school in Rockford, where he knew all the other kids; and he was always the biggest kid in his class.

“After a while, I started standing up for myself,” he said. “I remember one time, I punched a kid right in the face; that took care of that problem.”

That approach didn’t work with job interviews.

Koroll said he was devastated when he was rejected by the U.S. Army in 1992, during his senior year in high school.

“They said [because] I wouldn’t be able to communicate during an emergency, they couldn’t take me,” Koroll recalled.

Later, he went to work for OSHA in Aurora as a compliance officer. In 2002, he sought a promotion — to train people to do his job.

Once again, Koroll was turned away, he said, because of his stutter.

That’s when he tried to commit suicide. An ambulance took him to the hospital. The next day, a psychiatrist wrote him a prescription.

“On my way out of the hospital, I took those three prescriptions, tore them up and threw them in the trash,” Koroll said. “I decided to stop fighting my stuttering and accept it.”

Koroll says that might not be the right approach for everyone, but, he says, it’s worked for him.

“The moment I accepted and embraced my stuttering, it was like a huge weight was lifted off my chest and my fluency increased dramatically,” he said.

He eventually got hired to do the job he was told could never be his. To put himself and others at ease, he typically tells strangers about his stuttering — so it’s not a surprise.

Three years ago, he was hired to fill the vacancy left by the man who’d rejected him back in 2002.

“I’m sitting in his office now,” Koroll said.