People familiar with stuttering explain why Biden's debate performance was extraordinary

As I watched the presidential debate—in horror, like most—I perused Twitter at the same time to see if others were as appalled as I was. About an hour into the blazing tire fire, one tweet stood out to me so much I took a screenshot of it.

Biden has shared publicly his struggles with stuttering, which he's dealt with since childhood. In 2011, he wrote an article for People magazine detailing his experiences.

"I never had professional therapy," he wrote, "but a couple of nuns taught me to put a cadence to my speaking, and that's why I spent so much time reading poetry – Emerson and Yeats. But even in my small, boys' prep school, I got nailed in Latin class with the nickname Joe Impedimenta. You get so desperate, you're so embarrassed."


Biden's success at managing his stutter and rising to public office—a job that requires a lot of public speaking—has served as an encouragement to young people who have stutters. At the Lab School of Washington—a school for kids with learning disabilities or other difficulties—Biden told students in 2010 that he saw his stutter as "a gift from God" while also telling them, "Don't let your disability define you."

As other people with stutters chimed in to praise Biden, it became clearer and clearer what was happening on that stage and how extraordinarily Biden was handling it.

But for those of us who don't stutter or aren't close to someone who stutters, this post by Wes Kennison was perhaps the most helpful in understanding the dynamics on the debate stage from Biden's point of view. Kennison wrote:

"Joe Biden is a stutterer. Like many others, he has overcome the disability by understanding it and exercising extraordinary perseverance and discipline. If you know and love a stutterer and you watched the presidential debate last night, within minutes it became obvious what was going on. Abusive tone of voice, rapid fire interruptions, zigzagging change of topic, personal insult and humiliation, and family pain are all tripwires that scramble a stutterer's ability to speak. There was nothing unplanned or spontaneous in the President's strategy. The bastards did not prep him to attack Joe. They prepped him to attack Joe's disability hoping that by triggering his stuttering they might deceive an audience unfamiliar with the disability into thinking that Joe was stupid, weak, uncertain, confused, or lost to dementia.

If you have ever gotten in the face of a bully on the playground protecting a stutterer that you love, the game being played last night was nakedly and painfully obvious. If you watched with glee while it happened, then you haven't made much progress since the playground.

However, the stutterer that I love taught me early on that he did not so much need my protection. He fought back by owning and integrating his disability into who he is. He learned how to stand his ground as master of perseverance, knowledge, and empathy. Without his example, I would not have recognized the game that was being played last night. I would not have been able to recognize the subtle but intense struggle against the disability that Joe was winning at the same time he was struggling to advance his positions on the issues in the midst of a rhetorical shit storm.

But, like the stutterer that I know, Joe didn't need any help on the playground. I was proud of him.

The President flushed his family fortune down a gold-plated toilet and somehow wants us to believe that he is the poor victim of mean people. Then he tries, and fails, to beat up a kid with a disability on the playground. I'm done with this, guys. I want my country back. Thanks, Joe."

Even those of us who don't have a stutter would find it difficult to stay focused and verbally acute with someone constantly interrupting, insulting, and distracting us. If you dive at all into the methods that stutterers use to compensate, what sometimes appears to be searching for words is simply shifting to a new word when the stutter rears its head.

Trump and his supporters have tried to paint Biden with the "cognitive decline" brush, largely by focusing on his gaffes and verbal slip-ups (as if Trump doesn't have a full montage full of mispronunciations, misspeaks, and mistakes in his speeches). But knowing about Biden's speech impediment, how well he has overcome it, and how impressively he performed during a stutterer's "worst nightmare" scenario at the presidential debate, all questions about his mental acuity should now be put to rest.

Well done, sir. You've offered a hopeful example of perseverance and resilience to all who experience speech struggles.

And thankfully, the debate commission has added the option for moderators to cut the microphone when candidates go overboard, so hopefully the final two debates won't be as much of a nightmare for all of us.

Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash
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This story was originally shared on Capital One.

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