If Biden is like me, he stutters.
We will probably be hearing more about stuttering in the next few months. The Atlantic will publish a print article next month called “What Joe Biden Can’t Bring Himself to Say.” It is the first time I became aware that Biden is/was a stutter.
The former vice president and current presidential candidate has discussed his lifelong speech impediment because his mediocre debate performances have given rise to concern that he has some aging issues.
I know a lot about this subject — stuttering, I mean. I am a life-long stutterer who has earned my living for 40 years giving lectures. I apparently have a distinctive speaking style that people often think is a foreign accent.
It is not. It is a well-tuned pattern of “circumlocution” and camouflage that evolved to help me through stammering situations and allowed me to express my thoughts. For me, getting started is the hardest part, so I talk too fast and dislike interruptions.
A colleague once observed that in meetings I often say, “I have two (or three) points I want to make.” Apparently, I am claiming speaking space. I hate talking on the phone — thank God for texting.
Stuttering is seldom discussed in public. Hence, it is good to see a long article about Joe Biden’s speech history that may be the best article on the communication disorder that I have read.
There are many hypotheses about stuttering but no clear explanations. A frequent estimate is that 1% of Americans, about 3 million people, stutter. Three times more males than females stutter, it runs in families and it often seems to go away “by itself.”
A breakthrough for me was the end of my sophomore year in high school when I was fed up with stuttering (it takes a lot of energy).
My parents agreed for me to undergo some kind of brain scan and psychological exam to see if I was “normal.”
The results: My brain was normal, and there was no “mental” cause of my stuttering.
The doctor’s conclusion: “Overcoming stuttering,” would be up to me. It would have been easier if I had been given a pill.
If Biden is like me, stuttering was the most distinguishing aspect of his childhood and undoubtedly shaped his personality and character.
Having a “handicap,” as it was once called, provides a unique perspective to view society, human nature, friends and teachers.
I started speech therapy before I started school. I was released from regular classes for almost every year of my K-12 education. I had group speech therapy with kids in “special education,” two of whom, Peter and Tim, I knew were still in “special education” in high school and had marginal jobs for years.
I deliberately missed easy questions in spelling bees and history contests because I could not pronounce a letter or word at the right instant.
If Biden is like me, he believes that despite all that, stuttering has had more positives than negatives throughout his life.
While I surely must have been teased and bullied, I honestly do not recall any specific instances, but I knew I was “different.”
I recall my brother positioning himself in line next to me in sports or at camp so that he could say my name, if I couldn’t.
I recall my father picking me up for years after speech class but never directly talking about it. Instead we talked about trees, cars, merit badges — things that really mattered.
I recall my mother encouraging me to watch “Meet the Press” and giving me a dollar to order the transcript and listening to me read it aloud when it came in the mail.
Ironically, that probably planted the seeds of my lifelong interest in public affairs.
If Biden is like me, he learned that people are often uncomfortable with human imperfections. If he is like me, he asked, “why me Lord?” and overtime realized that almost all people have a disability — some visible, some not, some big, some small.
If Biden is like me, he knows that the worst aspect of stuttering was when teachers and other adults tried “to be helpful” by telling him to slow down, take a deep breath, or when they finished a sentence for him.
If Biden is like me, he realized that there are some people who always can understand what he wanted to say and some people who never seemed to understand regardless of how clearly he spoke.
If Biden is like me, he has been surprised that people divided themselves into those two groups without regard to age, education, familiarity, political views, personality, or social standing.
He has also learned that people who are intolerant of his imperfection might otherwise be nice people, good neighbors, or good colleagues.
Why can’t Biden say he is a stutterer? Probably because he has worked so hard dealing with being one. While I was in college, an uncle once suggested I use stuttering to avoid the military draft during the Vietnam Era.
I was insulated and resented his advice. It took me several years to forgive and forget.
Overcoming a challenge can be very empowering. I believe I am more aware and more sensitive to other people’s problems and situations because I have dealt with an obvious imperfection.
I have made extra efforts to overcome my oral weakness by inventing alternative ways to explain things and to have planned interruptions in my speaking.
I believe it has made me a better person because I listen rather than out-talk people. It has given me a thick skin and conviction that I will survive any little act of indignation. I imagine Biden has done the same.
After all, he made it through law school, the U.S. Senate and serving as vice president, all while few of us knew he stuttered.
Maybe it really doesn’t matter that much.