By Maeve Houston | January 26, 2021
In the first grade, I was just like any other kid — well behaved, curious, engaged in school, but the second I would start to speak, your expectations of who I was and what I was capable of would be inevitably tainted—because of my stutter.
I’ve had a stutter since I was six years old, and it has affected my life in more ways than I can possibly name. I vividly remember the exact moment I was told I needed help. We had pulled into the garage the end of a long day. As I was getting out from my booster seat onto the concrete floor, I was talking enthusiastically when, in the middle of my sentence, my throat felt like it was closing up on itself. I tried to say the word again. And again. And again, each time getting more and more frustrated with myself. No matter how hard I tried, the only thing that came out each time I mouthed the word out was silence. Frustrated and in tears, I remember screaming, “I’m trying to say it!”, exhausted taking in so many gulps of air.
Early on in life, I knew then that a stutter would forever impact the way I communicated. Knowing exactly what I wanted to say, only to have my body prevent me from saying it, was beyond confusing and frustrating to process and figure out. I would later go on to rely on my elementary school’s special education program, and would eventually learn ways to effectively cope with my impediment.
It is also important to note that I do not speak for every single person who stutters in this country. I can only speak on behalf of myself and my experiences, and how those experiences cause me to see these important matters in a different way. People think of a stutter as a bunch of sounds/words on repeat. But it is so much more than that. Stutter is a childhood-onset fluency disorder that according to the National Institute of Health is characterized by a “repetition of sounds, syllables, or words; prolongation of sounds; and interruptions in speech known as blocks.” Although true, this definition does not begin to describe the level of emotional distress and social impairments a stutter can cause.
While stuttering is an uncommon affliction, it does affect more than a handful of people—roughly three million people within the United States have a fluency disorder. One of those being President Joseph R. Biden.
When President Biden was a young boy in Catholic school, the stigma surrounding a stutter was even greater than it is today. School is one of the most difficult challenges for a stutterer, and for Biden, the stress was proliferated by the nuns’ bullying of him. In an article for The Atlantic, he recounts one of such instances:
“The paragraph I had to read was: ‘Sir Walter Raleigh was a gentleman. He laid his cloak upon the muddy road suh-suh-so the lady wouldn’t soil her shoes when she entered the carriage’… And I said, ‘Sir Walter Raleigh was a gentle man who—’ and then the nun said, ‘Mr. Biden, what is that word?’ And it was gentleman that she wanted me to say, not gentle man. And she said, ‘Mr. Buh-Buh-Buh-Biden, what’s that word?”
The teasing and bullying ring familiar to anyone who grew up with a stutter. For me, the most memorable feeling was the self doubt that these microaggressions bring on. I recall sitting in my classroom in second grade, reading a written passage aloud. As I was speaking — and mildly stuttering — I reached a word that really tripped me up. I tried to say it, but it wouldn’t come out right. I slowed down, and attempted to say it again. But all I did was prolong the first syllable every time, until a classmate interrupted and finished it for me. I was ashamed that it took me so long to not even say the word, when a classmate across the room, frustrated with my taking so long, interrupted me and said it instantaneously. Waves of embarrassment and anger took over me, completely undermined and utterly humiliated in front of my entire class. This is why Biden’s experiences hit too close to home.
This is not the only time that Biden faced bullying for his stutter; it persisted into high school, with people calling him “Stutterhead” and “Stut,” well into his professional career as well. During his campaign for the 2020 presidential election, there was much more ableism in the media than you are likely able to recall. News outlets ran stories such as: “Joe Biden Gaffes Again!” “Joe Biden’s Age is Showing” and “Is Joe Biden’s Mind Degrading?” Even Lara Trump went on to mock him for his stutter and compare it to a “cognitive decline” on national television. These instances might have seemed like some sort of “cognitive decline” to some, but Biden was simply stuttering.
Equating a person’s stutter with their intellect no matter their age is extremely damaging and offensive to those with a fluency disorder. To the people who are saying “But Joe Biden doesn’t stutter anymore!” Well, he does. This is a critical part to the double-edged sword that is “passing” as able-bodied. A person does not just “lose” or “outgrow” their stutter, it stays with them throughout their life, they just learn how to live with it. In speech therapy, many stutterers are taught strategies to compact and cope with their stutter, including me.
I was in speech therapy from first to fifth grade, and I still stutter; maybe not as severely or noticeably as I once did, but I can tell when it’s about to happen, and it does happen every single day; even though my stutter is very noticeable sometimes, others, I use different strategies to better communicate with others, much like you might have seen Joe Biden do, as well.
A few common strategies that he has used include: using alternative language, correcting previous words, slowing down, and practicing phrases beforehand. Since many of these tools require on-the-spot manipulation of language, reading a pre-composed passage aloud is very difficult, as mentioned when he was a young boy. One that he taught himself was to practice responses beforehand when he knew that he would need them — which is what he did for conversations on his paper route:
“I knew the one guy loved the Phillies. And he’d asked me about them all the time. And I knew another person would ask me about my sister, so I would practice an answer.”
If you have seen him use a synonym of a word mid-sentence, or start stuttering on another word to skip it entirely and start over with a different way of saying the sentence, then you have seen Biden use these speech strategies in action.
At times, when Biden started to stutter, reporters would use the term “gaffe.” This is in fact, not a “gaffe,” but a stutterer stuttering. Fellow stutterer and writer for The Atlantic, John Hendrickson weighed in on the topic:
“A non-stutterer might not notice when he appears to get caught on words as an adult, because he usually maneuvers out of those moments quickly and expertly. But on other occasions… Biden’s lingering stutter is hard to miss.”
Misconceptions on stuttering were especially on display during one-on-one debates between Biden and Trump this fall. When the two candidates were up on the stage, any stutterer could tell you about the ableist strategies that Donald Trump used on those nights. For example, when Joe Biden’s sons were brought up, Biden was deliberately made to feel anxious, thus more prone to stuttering. The interrupting, the sudden change of topic, the personal insults, the bringing up of a traumatic memory — to any stutter out there watching, it was clear that Trump was purposefully trying to make Joe Biden stutter, thus showing his “weakness” during a crucial moment of the campaign. But Biden did not fall for any of these traps, he persisted, and went on to deliver well-worded remarks and finish the debates off strongly, proving that one of the most valuable strategies a stutterer can learn is courage. Biden remarked:
“I mean, I can’t remember a time where I’ve ever worried before a crowd of 80,000 people or 800 people or 80 people—I haven’t had that feeling of dread since, I guess, speech class in college.”
The President has gone on to inspire many young people with speech impediments, with thirteen year old Brayden Harrington being just one example. After meeting Biden in New Hampshire while on the campaign trail, Biden gave Harrington some personal advice on overcoming his fluency disorder. Biden was so influential to Brayden that he went on to speak about that moment at the 2020 Democratic National Convention:
“He told me about a book of poems by Yeats he would read out loud to practice… He showed me how he marks his addresses to make them easier to say out loud. So, I did the same thing today,”
After Biden won the 2020 Presidential Election, Brayden further spoke on CBS to share his thoughts about the President’s win:
“I see him as a role model… He stutters, and he made it, like, this far in life, as a president-elect, and that’s really, I would say, brave of him to put himself out there, for the whole country, and to be a leader. And that’s just really great of him, to just push himself.”
President Biden’s win means so much more to people than actually given credit for. I know that I would have had a much easier time in school, reading a paragraph from a book aloud to the class, had I known that someone in the same boat would go on to accomplish great feats; especially because the only memorable representation that I had growing up was The King’s Speech. To have a stutterer in the highest office of the country, a position that relies upon public speaking, is going to go on to inspire so many young people to not let their impediments define them.
Joe Biden’s stutter matters so much more than you think it does. Stuttering defines the livelihoods of the people who live with it, and most often requires people to change the entire course of their personal and, especially, professional lives. Most stutterters would never dare to pursue a career that is centered around public speaking. Joe Biden did, and in the process he overcame insurmountable odds to get to where he is now. To not acknowledge this part of him is to not acknowledge who he has now become and achieved. Joe Biden is a different person to people who understand the impact of his stutter, one who I wholeheartedly wish would be visible to all.