Biden shows it’s OK to stutter
Faced with unrelenting mockery from President Trump and many of his surrogates, former Vice President Joe Biden has been honest and open about one of his greatest personal vulnerabilities — his lifelong battle with stuttering.
During a CNN town hall last month, Biden was asked to share advice for a teenager who stutters. His response was an inspiring 10 minutes for me, a speech-language pathologist who has been stuttering since age three.
For perhaps the first time on a national stage, Biden acknowledged in a very public way that he still hesitates, repeats words and gets stuck, mostly when tired. It was evident that the former vice president spoke that night with some hesitation and noticeable stuttering.
As the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for president, Biden is proving an important fact — that success isn’t reserved for those who have completely conquered their stutter and never slip up.
In my professional and personal opinion, we can be happier and equally successful if we don’t work to hide our stutter.
More than three million Americans stutter. For most people, stuttering begins to appear in early childhood. In some, it can disappear. Others, like me, continue to stutter throughout their life.
We now have evidence that stuttering is most likely related to genetics – stuttering tends to run in families – and differences in how the brain organizes speech production. It is not a disease, a product of stress or a sign of low intelligence. While speech therapy is helpful, there is no known cure, nor should stuttering be described as a curable condition.
As with other individuals with disabilities, there are large societal impacts placed on people who stutter. Stuttering is often met with ridicule and impatience. Listeners attempt to finish a person’s sentences and words, or do not listen at all. Even many speech-language-pathologists report being uncomfortable and ill-prepared while working with children and adults who stutter
But too often, the message for children and adults who stutter, as well as those who know them, is to not stutter, that “perfect” speech is the only way to redemption.
While speaking without a stutter may seem a worthy goal, it is difficult and can lead to more severe stuttering and a lot of anxiety. Often, these efforts can lead to lower self-esteem. The harm in trying not to stutter is not considered, though it is well documented.
I hid my own stuttering as a young person, which led me to be unable to communicate successfully. I was very unhappy. This experience is somewhat similar to that of other adults who stutter. We come in all shapes, sizes and races, and we inhabit every social class and career. Most of us do not see a need to overcome stuttering, or allow stuttering to hold a negative connotation. We persevere and accept stuttering as a normal variation in communication, and we “stutter well.” Some of us find joy and comfort through being involved in the stuttering community as members of support groups, researchers and clinicians. Some of us are very fluent and may not stutter much at all.
I have a great career helping people who stutter, teaching students about stuttering and doing research on the topic at The University of Toledo. I am also a husband and father, and love to speak in public. I would have accomplished none of this if I had tried not to stutter.
Biden’s politics aside, it is hard to argue against his accomplishments as a speaker and a person. He is truly a great communicator, and I think in many ways a good role model. But we must be careful in how we share the message of overcoming and trying not to stutter with young children who stutter. You can continue to stutter in a positive manner, and that is OK. Making an effort not to stutter can make speaking more difficult. There are many ways to be our best selves.
Biden calls for compassion and understanding, which is what children and adults who stutter need. Simply listen, refrain from providing advice and be kind. Children who stutter are stronger than you might think. Advocate for them, lift them up, allow them to grow and help them to explore the best way for them to be.
Rodney Gabel, Ph.D., is a speech language pathologist and professor at The University of Toledo. He is the author of more than 70 research articles and creative work related to stuttering. He conducts therapy and advocacy work through the Gabel Center for Stuttering Therapy LLC in Maumee, Ohio.