Presidential candidates live under a microscope. Entire news cycles have been dedicated to riveting stories about Sarah Palin’s hair follicles and Barack Obama’s choice of mustard. It’s no surprise, then, that people noticed when Joe Biden seemed to stutter in some of his sentences during the second Democratic debate. Biden’s detractors were quick to latch onto this as a sign of weakness, replaying the stuttering sound bite again and again to portray him as some foggy-headed old fuddy-duddy.
In reality, stuttering has nothing to do with cognitive ability. I know this because I stutter. If it takes me a while longer to say a word, it’s not because I can’t remember the word; it’s because the neural pathway that converts words in my head to sounds in my mouth is wired differently. And differences, of course, are the best way to get negative attention in our society.
Society’s attitude is by far the worst thing about being a person who stutters. Taking extra time to get my words out can be frustrating, sure, but that’s NOTHING compared to the misery of dealing with people’s reactions. People making weird faces, ranging from confusion to disgust. People trying to guess my next word, like an impromptu game of charades. People putting our conversation completely on hold so they can teach me how to not stutter anymore: “Slow down and breathe!” Oh wow, you mean this whole time I haven’t been breathing? No wonder I’m a stutterer (and dead)!
You’re telling me I’m the one with the communication disorder? Because I’ve never interrupted someone mid-sentence to suggest that their elocution might be improved by having better orgasms. (Yes, someone actually said that to me.)
Almost all children who stutter are discouraged from speaking in some way or another. It’s usually not as explicit as someone walking up to them and saying, “Hey, stuttering kid! Keep your mouth shut!” But when your voice causes adults and peers to snicker, roll their eyes, awkwardly tense up, etc., then it’s pretty damn discouraging.
Growing up, I implicitly learned to avoid speaking whenever possible. I hated my voice so much, I didn’t want to subject anyone to my defective sentences, full of awkward breaks and pauses. I figured whatever future I had, it probably involved a vow of silence.
We like to tell kids they can be anything they want when they grow up, but when you stutter, any career that involves addressing an audience (politician, speaker, entertainer) feels scary and unattainable. This was especially bad for me, because my dream growing up was to be a stand-up comic.
Well, I guess the joke’s on teenage me, because today I’m a touring author and comedian. It only took me 30-something years to get over it. Did I stop stuttering? Hell no! I couldn’t stop if I wanted to. But I stopped wanting to stop. Instead of wasting all my time and energy trying to conform to unattainable ableist standards, I learned that it’s OK to stutter. And I learned by example. I discovered an entire stuttering community out there.
I attended the National Stuttering Association conference and met all kinds of people who stutter ― people who didn’t hate themselves, who didn’t silence themselves. They stuttered, and they were OK with it! I remember watching them and thinking, “That’s who I want to be! I want to order food from a waiter like that!” I had discovered the power of stuttering pride!
There’s a popular saying in comedy (though I’m not sure who actually said it): “Your weakness is your strength.” Stand-up history is written by misfits and underdogs who turned their differences into classic bits and profound statements. You have to own your quirks!
When I first entered into my local open-mic scene (San Francisco, 2010), I was quickly met with quippy smartasses looking to score a cheap laugh at my expense. I remember introducing myself to one comic and stuttering on my name, as I usually do. Eager to demonstrate his wit, he replied, “Is that Nina with five Ns?”
“No,” I said, flipping him the double bird, “it’s Nina with two Ns!” Just like that, I had created a joke as the result of someone making fun of my stutter. My weakness was my strength! To this day, whenever I need inspiration for a new joke or a written piece, I just think about all the crappy and ridiculous comments I get from fluent (non-stuttering) people. It’s a comedy gold mine!
If Joe Biden goes on to become the Democratic nominee, he will, of course, face off against Trump, the biggest, meanest roastmaster the political world has ever seen. Make no mistake, Trump WILL make fun of Biden for his speaking style. I’m no political expert, but I know that the only way to beat a roast is to own your differences, be proud of who you are, and make the other guy look like a dick in the process.
Currently, Joe Biden does not identify as a person who stutters. He refers to his stuttering in the past tense, describing it as a childhood memory. In a recent interview published in The Atlantic, he says that he hasn’t stuttered in such a long time, he only vaguely remembers what it felt like. If he identifies as someone who overcame stuttering and became fluent, that’s his personal choice, and other people are welcome to do the same.
However, stuttering with pride and community is something I hope the former vice president feels he can do, if he chooses. We can be strong people and good communicators — not in spite of our speech, but because of the experience it has given us.
Nina G is a stand-up comedian and author of “Stutterer Interrupted: The Comedian Who Almost Didn’t Happen.” She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Nina has appeared on NPR, BBC’s “Ouch” and TEDx, as well as in Psychology Today. When she isn’t performing at clubs or colleges, she is giving keynote speeches at conferences talking about disability awareness/