November 30, 2020

Biden’s stutter is not dementia and it’s definitely not a joke

In her first speech after the 2020 presidential election, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris introduced Joe Biden as “a man with a big heart.” In a pre-election speech, former President Barack Obama described Biden as a man who “talks about decency, kindness, empathy…” and as someone others recognize for “helping somebody else out.”

I have felt a personal stake in this election, partly because of my own experience of Biden’s decency and caring. I know he was willing to help me — someone he had never heard of. Several years ago, I wrote to Biden concerning a speech impediment that has caused me pain. He wrote back to me with a letter offering advice and support. I now keep that letter in a frame. Later, at a campaign event, Biden even posed for a selfie with me.

As a child, Biden was a stutterer. The National Institute on Deafness and Communication Disorders defines stuttering as the “involuntary repetition of sounds, syllables, and words.” Most children, researchers say, outgrow stuttering, but 25% of them will cope with lifelong stuttering.

Biden, speaking to the American Stuttering Institute in 2016, said, “I can think of nothing else that has ever stripped me of my dignity as greatly and profoundly and as thoroughly as when I stuttered in grade school.”

He has described how some people saw him as “slow-witted” because of his stutter, and inappropriate remarks criticizing Biden’s speech patterns marred this year’s election campaign. I recognize many of my own difficulties when I hear about Biden’s childhood stutter and because of that, I wrote to him when he was vice-president.

I’ve struggled with stuttering since I was about 10. In 2016, I decided to write a letter to then-Vice President Joe Biden, sharing my experience about stuttering. I wasn’t expecting a reply. I suspected that people in the White House are too busy to reply to personal letters, but, a day before my birthday, I went to check the mail and noticed a manila envelope addressed to me.

It was from Joe Biden, with the vice president’s address on it.

I was shocked and excited. In the letter, Biden explains how he struggled with his stutter. Biden said he practiced reading aloud in front of a mirror and worked hard to overcome it.

Biden wrote that he memorized a quote from his favorite poet, William Yeats.

The quote is: “Every trial endured and weathered in the right spirit makes a soul nobler and stronger than it was before.” Biden says that he would stand in front of his mirror and repeat that line every day until he could say it without a stutter.

He wrote, “I told myself that I would not let stuttering define me, and you shouldn’t let it define you either.” 

As for myself, I still stutter. I look at it as a gift a little. Stuttering has certainly made me more forgiving of other people, and it has forced me to be aware of the obstacles and inequities facing people with all kinds of disabilities — not just stuttering. In his letter to me, Biden even praised my actions in support of people with disabilities. 

I know how it feels to be hung up on when I’ve tried to get through to an automated voice receptionist. I know how horrible it can be to be forced to read aloud and have people assume that I’m stupid or have nothing to say because of my dysfluency. I’m fairly sure that I’ve recognized some irregular speech patterns in Biden’s public speaking that other stutterers might also note: garrulousness, not-quite-appropriate word choice when Biden swerves away from certain words that might give him trouble. I wish the public had more awareness of the strength Biden demonstrates in public speaking when he speaks authoritatively to large audiences on issues that are complicated and sensitive.

Photo contributed by John Poe.
John Poe poses for a selfie with current-President-elect Joe Biden.

Biden’s account of his own difficulties with stuttering has helped me keep going despite frequent misunderstandings and embarrassments related to stuttering. I keep in mind that there are many famous people who have stuttered or still do. Some of those people, besides Biden, are Winston Churchill, Houston Astros outfielder George Springer, golfer Tiger Woods, former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal, actor James Earl Jones, actor Samuel L. Jackson, singer Bill Withers and singer Elvis Presley. Certainly, no one thinks of these people only because they once stuttered. Just as Biden advises, they haven’t let stuttering define them.

Being a member of The Stuttering Foundation, a national organization, has been a great help to me. This organization, with offices in Memphis, Tennessee, issues a quarterly magazine. Its informative articles about stuttering, kids’ drawings and letters from people who stutter have certainly helped me put my own disability in context and increased my awareness of how important it is to spread knowledge about stuttering, its cause and varied strategies that can help all of us — those who stutter and those who don’t — deal with it.

 

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