Joe Biden’s narrative about conquering his stammer might be true for him. That doesn’t mean it should be imposed on the rest of us.
Originally published in The Nation
WHEN 13-YEAR-OLD BRAYDEN HARRINGTON peered into the camera during the Democratic National Convention and described his February meeting with Joe Biden, virtually everyone I know who stutters felt our hearts crack open.
It took Brayden six seconds to connect the “s” to the “t” in the word “stutter.” In that instant, watching his head cock and his eyes squint, I was teleported back to my own childhood. I thought about all the times I deflected a bully’s ridicule. Or prayed to be skipped over in class. Or wondered if I would ever talk normally enough to have a successful adult life.
Brayden’s DNC appearance injected stuttering, a neurological condition that affects 1 percent of adults and 5 percent of kids, into the national conversation. It is likely to remain there, at least through Election Day. Last week, for example, ABC News reported on a Russian disinformation campaign suggesting that Biden’s “verbal miscues” resulted from dementia rather than his stutter. According to the network, the Department of Homeland Security withheld publication of an intelligence bulletin about the campaign.
Two days later, Politico reported that President Trump’s advisers have discussed whether to try to trigger Biden’s stutter on the debate stage.
Biden, until recently, has had little to say about the stutter that dogged him throughout childhood. He’s even more reticent to acknowledge, as The Atlantic’s John Hendrickson convincingly argues, that he still stutters. But lately the Democrat has opened up, for good political reasons. First, his encounter with Harrington showcased his compassion, and contrasted him to President Trump, who famously mimicked Serge Kovaleski, a reporter with a congenital joint condition. Second, discussing his stutter portrays Biden as a warrior who faced a daunting obstacle early in his life and vanquished it.
Given how often stuttering is played for laughs in popular culture, the sympathetic media reactions to Biden’s and Harrington’s stutters feel like a breakthrough and a relief. We who stutter felt seen during the DNC.
But we shouldn’t give Biden the final word on stuttering. If we let him define it as a beast to be slain, a life-limiting impediment to “overcome,” we are missing the opportunity for a deeper conversation—about disability, communication, and the value of human variation.
Stutterers have long considered Biden one of our own. Toward the end of his Senate career, he began accepting invitations to our events, where he shared relatable stories from his youth.
“I shouldn’t tell you this,” he said during a speech at the National Stuttering Association’s 2004 convention, which I attended. Biden recounted how, in seventh grade, he stormed out of a classroom after a nun imitated his stutter. He walked home, only to have his mother drive him back to school and confront the instructor. “Sister, let me tell you something right now,” Biden recalled his mother saying. “If you ever make fun of my son again, I’ll come back and rip that damned bonnet off your head.”
The senator capped his 2004 speech with a bit of magical thinking. He explained that he cured his stutter by taking a public-speaking class in high school. “I had people who believed in me,” he said. In fact, there is no cure for stuttering.
Embedded in Biden’s address that day was a message for children who stutter: They should strive for fluency so they can succeed like him. “We can’t kid ourselves,” he said when I pushed back during the Q&A. “The power of the message to persuade relates directly to the willingness of the other person to listen.”
That’s been Biden’s narrative ever since: conquering his stutter paved the way for his ascent to the Senate and vice presidency. During a CNN Town Hall in New Hampshire last winter, he suggested, incorrectly, that stuttering stemmed from a lack of confidence. “I was determined to overcome it,” he said. “And I basically did.”
But the “overcoming” script is ultimately rooted in shame. And it’s exhausting. “It feels like a good part of our day should focus on rehabilitation or remediation instead of doing the things that all humans like and deserve to be doing, just living as we want,” writes Nina G, a comedian who stutters openly, on the site Rooted in Rights.
Stuttering doesn’t need a cure. What needs fixing are listeners’ reactions: the interruptions, telephone hang-ups, and adults who find it hilarious to ask, “Have you forgotten your name?” Not to mention wage disparities and airport detentions.
“Sometimes I refer to it as ‘my stutter,’ but sometimes I refer to it as ‘the stutter,’” composer Jerome Ellis said on This American Life in August. “Because to me, stuttering is not bound to my body.… It is a phenomenon that occurs between me and whoever I’m speaking to.”
This is called the social model of disability. Other groups figured it out long before stutterers did. Disabled activists asserted their power in 1977, when they occupied San Francisco’s federal building, demanding regulations that would increase accessibility. The deaf community built autonomous cultural institutions, including the deaf-led Gallaudet University. Autistic people have championed neurodiversity, the idea that society benefits when it accommodates different ways to learn, communicate, and behave.
Stutterers are catching up. Many of us now say that fluent speech isn’t superior speech. Stuttering has value: For one, it disrupts the expectation that we should all run at industrial efficiency 24-7 and present our most carefully groomed social-media selves.
“By stuttering, we can turn vapid social interactions into potentially deep, intimate, and consequential ones,” my friend Christopher Constantino, an assistant professor at Florida State University, wrote in the 2019 anthology Stammering Pride and Prejudice. “Lowering our guard can cause others to lower theirs.”
Evidence No. 1 is Brayden Harrington. He might have chosen to rerecord his DNC video until he spoke fluently. But that would have robbed his viewers of the intimacy that comes when someone reveals their whole self. “The power of the message to persuade relates directly to the willingness of the other person to listen,” Biden said 16 years ago. Harrington spoke without shame, and his honest words commanded our attention, stuttering and all.