OPINION: Why Biden’s stuttering is suddenly a big deal and why it should be

Former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential candidate, campaigns at the Rex Theatre in Manchester, N.H., Feb. 8, 2020. He talked recently at length about how he overcame severe stuttering, raising awareness about the speech disorder. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / THE NEW YORK TIMES
Former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential candidate, campaigns at the Rex Theatre in Manchester, N.H., Feb. 8, 2020. He talked recently at length about how he overcame severe stuttering, raising awareness about the speech disorder. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / THE NEW YORK TIMES

How did you overcome stuttering and what advice would give a college student who has struggled with stuttering since he was a child?

It seemed to me an odd question to ask a candidate for president of the United States at a CNN town hall. Given all that needs our attention these days — economic inequality, immigration and health care — any mention of stuttering seemed like trivia, a throwaway question to lighten the mood.

But it didn’t take long after former Vice President Joe Biden launched into a response that I realized the seriousness of the issue.

“You know, stuttering, when you think about it, is the only handicap that people still laugh about,” Biden said. “That still humiliate people about.”

Biden said he didn’t receive professional help for his stutter as a child, but worked with the Department of Speech Pathology while he was a law student at Syracuse University. He credited his mother for not letting his stutter define him.

He said his mother would tell him, “Joey, don’t let this define you. Joey, remember who you are. Joey, you can do it.”

He said, “So every time I would walk out, she would reinforce me. I know that sounds silly, but it really matters.”

It matters to a lot of people.

According to Craig Coleman, a speech-language pathologist and board-certified specialist in fluency disorders at Edinboro University, nearly 1% of adults and roughly 5% of young children in the U.S. stutter.

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I can think of at least three people in my immediate family who stuttered as young children but through therapy were able to overcome the impediment. And when Biden revealed he still sometimes struggles, especially when he's tired, host Anderson Cooper shared that his late mother, fashion designer Gloria Vanderbilt, often stuttered when she was tired as well.

One woman in the audience was so moved by the exchange, she wept.

Ana Paula G. Mumy, a speech-language pathologist and clinical professor at the University of Kansas, welcomed the attention the former vice president has brought to the speech disorder.

Ana Paula G. Mumy is a speech-language pathologist and clinical professor at the University of Kansas. CONTRIBUTED
Ana Paula G. Mumy is a speech-language pathologist and clinical professor at the University of Kansas. CONTRIBUTED

Biden’s story, she said, speaks of acceptance, courage, defying boundaries, and the power of positive voices in his life, particularly his mother.

“Biden encourages people who stutter ‘not to judge themselves by their speech’,” Mumy said. “It’s a powerful thing for people who stutter to identify fully with their stuttering while not allowing it to curtail their self-worth, their desires, their ambitions.”

Mumy said that Biden was right in saying that stuttering “has nothing to do with your intelligence quotient; it has nothing to do with your intellectual makeup.”

“I would add an important variable that he missed, which is the scientific evidence that points to the genetic and neurophysiological causes of stuttering,” she said. “The bottom line is that stuttering is no one’s fault, and people who stutter are not broken. They are valuable human beings whose voices should be heard, with or without stuttering. It’s certainly a difference they must face and work through; however, it does not define their potential.”

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Mumy said America needs to see more people who stutter, like Biden, who have proved that it’s possible to make it through; individuals who have not held back from pursuing their dreams in spite of their stutter.

“I know dozens of beautiful, bright and accomplished people who stutter who are extremely influential in their respective fields, and we need to hear more of their stories,” she said.

Although only about 1% of the general population stutters, Mumy said that for those 3 million stutterers in the United States alone, stuttering is a difficult experience to live through.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“If you take time to listen to the narratives of many people who stutter, you’ll find that embarrassment, frustration, fear, loneliness and shame are prevailing themes,” she said. “Stuttering carries stigma in such a way that many people who stutter actually report feeling subhuman.”

In fact, she said, for stutterers, the ever-present difficulty of performing such a mundane yet necessary daily task as talking is often exhausting, isolating and debilitating.

Coleman recommends that parents who are concerned about stuttering contact a speech-language pathologist with some background in stuttering.

“Treatment for stuttering should be comprehensive, focusing not just on how much a person stutters, but most importantly, how stuttering impacts their communication with others, and their thoughts and feelings about their communication abilities,” he said.

Biden kept apologizing for giving so much time to the issue, but he shouldn’t have. You won’t find stuttering on the list of items voters say they care about, but it’s no less important.

Mumy told me that “people who stutter need to know that they are not alone, that they are worthy of love and belonging, and that they can in fact achieve purpose and meaning in their lives.”

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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