What People With Stutters See When We Watch Joe Biden
It's not always a "gaffe."
Last month, my mom and I turned on the television to watch the first presidential debate. We didn’t say anything, but not for lack of nerves. I was, at least, too nervous to speak fluently.
I’ve had a stutter for as long as I can remember. It has, since my childhood, affected everything about my life. My family was supportive out of necessity: both my older brother and father stutter too. Stuttering — a communication disorder that is characterized by involuntary interruptions within a person’s speech pattern — is part of my family's very own cadence. The constant support was vital to give me the confidence to speak freely within our home from a young age. Despite this, I still felt largely alone in my experience as a woman. According to The Stuttering Foundation, women are four times less likely than men to stutter long term.
Over the course of the debate, Biden fell victim to what the media would consider one of his “gaffes.” He appeared to stumble over his words, sometimes changing them at the last minute. Other times, he would begin to say something, pause as if in thought, and then proceed. What the public saw was not a series of mistakes, but a series of blocks caused by Biden’s stutter.
“He definitely switches up his words, and other times he just stutters through it,” Dr. Heather Grossman, the executive director at the American Institute for Stuttering, tells me about Biden’s speech patterns. “What a lot of people would think is him tripping over a word is the way he stutters.”
Stuttering looks different for every person who deals with the impediment. Different people who stutter employ different tactics when a block arises. While most people have some form of disfluency in their speech pattern when nervous or stressed, a block specifically relates to an instance of stuttering. They come in the form of sound prolongations, repetitions, or the total absence of sound in the middle of a word or sentence. Each person who stutters has different sounds or words that can cause blocks to happen.
Word switching is a common way for stutterers to get out of a difficult situation without fully blocking. At a New Hampshire Town Hall in February, Biden said that he marks up his written speeches to remind him where to pause. During the debate, it may have looked like he was talking to himself before each topic. But what looked like mindless mutters may have actually been Biden using self-rehearsal to prepare what he was going to say. Both tactics help him speak without blocking. They also reveal the hoops that nearly three million Americans who stutter have to jump through in order to speak fluently in a culture that doesn't understand what stutterers go through.
Despite what President Donald Trump and other bullies may believe, a stutter isn’t a marker of a person’s poor intelligence, or a sign of forgetfulness. Data shows that having a stutter is primarily genetic. “We have enough brain imaging studies to know that there are very concrete differences in the neural arrangement in the brains of those who stutter and those who don’t,” Grossman says. The Stuttering Foundation notes that 60% of stutterers have a family member who does as well.
Sara MacIntyre, the Founder of YouSpeak Stuttering Therapy in Philadelphia and the Director of Programs and Education at The Stuttering Foundation, chose to keep her stutter private for most of her time in high school and college while still participating in sports and other activities.
“I naturally gravitated at a young age towards hiding my stuttering. In fact, I felt like it was the most important secret I had to keep,” she says. “I had so many tricks up my sleeve from ordering only things that I could say, switching my words around, carefully planning and strategizing my day, [or] finding excuses to leave class.”
Biden speaks often about how he overcame his childhood stutter. The public might see Biden’s blocks as a failure to speak fluently — without any blocks — but that isn’t the case. For Biden, overcoming a stutter doesn't always mean appearing to not have one, and the internet seems to agree. After the first presidential debate, stutterers flooded Twitter to share their own experiences of growth and acceptance.
“I think the term ‘overcoming’ is not helpful,” says Jacquelyn Revere, a YouTuber and person who stutters. “It gives fluent people another way to dictate how stutterers should talk, dictate what their journey to fluency could and should be, and it lets them point out ‘successful’ people and make examples of those people [by saying] this is who you could be.”
It’s easy to assume that MacIntyre and Revere have overcome their stutters because they both talk about it openly. Instead, Revere views her fluency as a lifelong journey. “I’m constantly challenging myself in new spaces,” she says. “I’m continually stretching what it means to overcome it for myself.”
In my own experience, it has taken nearly a decade of dedication and self-love to feel at peace with my stutter. Speech therapy helped, but so did unlearning the negative connotations that I associated with my impediment. In watching Biden run for president, I have learned to not see it as something that holds me back. Vice President Biden has provided me a feeling I seldom have about my stutter — really, truly, proud.