Joe Biden on stuttering: 'Don't let it define you'

Stuttering is a speech disorder, not a measure of someone's intelligence.

Diana Duong 4 minute read October 2, 2020
Joe Biden, 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, speaks during the first U.S. presidential debate hosted by Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020.

Joe Biden, 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, speaks during the first U.S. presidential debate hosted by Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. Kevin Dietsch/UPI/Bloomberg ORG XMIT: 775570034

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has had a stutter since childhood, and has been bullied about it for decades.

But on Tuesday night, during the first of three U.S. presidential debates, he faced the world’s most powerful bully.

Stuttering, also known as stammering, is a speech disorder that affects 70 million people worldwide, 290,000 of whom are Canadian. Someone who stutters knows what they want to say — they just have difficulty saying it. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms include brief silences, anxiety about talking, difficulty starting a word, or prolonging and repeating sounds, syllables, and words. It’s not known what causes someone to stutter, but there may be a genetic component — two thirds of people who stutter have a family member who also stutters.

There’s a common misperception that people who stutter are scared, anxious, or unintelligent. In Biden’s case, his stammers have prompted people to comment on his age and mental fitness. In fact, stuttering does not affect intelligence. But it does tend to become more pronounced when a person is feeling under stress, hurried, pressured, or emotional.

The debate on Tuesday night put this on full display during one of the most contentious exchanges so far in the run-up to the U.S. presidential election. Biden was talking about his late son Beau’s military service when president Donald Trump began interrupting and insulting Biden’s still-alive son, Hunter. Biden became visibly angered and stammered.

“My son, my son, my son — like a lot people, like a lot of people you know at home — had a drug problem,” said Biden. “He’s overtaken it, he’s fixed it, he’s worked on it. And I’m proud of him. I’m proud of my son.”

“For him, being a person who stutters, means he’s overcome something major in his life,” says Mary Wood, a member of the Canadian Stuttering Association. Wood had a stutter for 60 years, which she has mostly overcome now through years of working on self-acceptance and strengthening self-esteem. She now works as a minister with Unity Church in Mississauga. She has also seen Biden speak at a National Stuttering Association conference a decade ago.

While it can be uncomfortable to speak to someone who stutters, it’s not a reason to feel worried or embarrassed.

“If you’re speaking with someone who stutters, the number one thing to do is make eye contact,” she says. “Number two, don’t finish their sentences. And number three: be patient.”

Biden has spoken publicly about his stutter for years. In 2011, he wrote a personal essay for  People, recalling his childhood reciting Emerson and Yeats in front of a mirror, adjusting the cadence of his speech, and getting bullied in latin class at his all-male prep school.

“If you’re speaking with someone who stutters, the number one thing to do is make eye contact. Number two, don’t finish their sentences. And, three: be patient.”

Struggling from childhood to college

In a feature published inThe Atlantic, Biden goes into detail about struggling with a stutter throughout childhood and college — from the “anger, rage, humiliation,” he faced after a Catholic nun called him, “Mr. Buh-Buh-Buh-Biden” in the seventh grade, to how he’s mostly overcome his stutter today, from constantly reciting poetry to annotating his speeches with breath marks. He continues to work with children living with speech disorders.

“I hope what they see is: Be mindful of people who are in situations where their difficulties do not define their character, their intellect,” Biden told The Atlantic, referring to public perceptions of his stuttering. “Because that’s what I tell stutterers. You can’t let it define you.”

At the Democratic National Convention in August, 13-year-old Brayden Harrington shared his experience meeting Biden a few months earlier and how he had inspired him to feel more “confident” about his stutter.

“He told me that we were members of the same club. W-we… stutter,” says Harrington.

He also said that Biden had showed him the books he practiced recitation with and how he marks up his speeches to make it easier to read out loud, noting that it was “amazing” to see that someone similar to himself had become the vice-president of the United States.

Biden’s advice

In 2015, Biden sent a letter to the Stuttering Foundation of America with advice to those who struggle with stuttering:

“If I could share one piece of advice with all of those struggling with a stutter, it would be this: When you commit yourself to a goal and when you persevere in the face of struggle, you will discover new strengths and skills to help you overcome not only this challenge, but future life challenges as well. I promise you — you have nothing to be ashamed of, and you have every reason to be proud.”

If you or someone you care about is living with a stutter, connecting with a support network can help to not only learn ways to better manage, but also share experiences with others. Some Canadian resources include the Canadian Stuttering Association, Stuttering Connections, and The Speech and Stuttering Institute. | @dianaduo
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