True Paradox: Joe Biden & Overcoming Stuttering

President Joe Biden, with an insert of the article's author, Uri Schneider

20th January 2021

On the day of his inauguration, US speech & language pathologists Dr. Phil Schneider and Uri Schneider reflect on President Joe Biden and the narrative of overcoming stammering.

Joe Biden still stutters. And in his own words, he has 'overcome' stuttering.  

Now, this may sound like a paradox, but it's actually a common development for many people who grow up stuttering.

Joseph Biden grew up with a pronounced stutter for which he was ridiculed, bullied and mocked (scroll down to see videos). His stuttering, however, did not prevent him from pursuing a lifetime career of public service and he has been successful in the presence of stuttering. Clearly, Joe Biden is proof that a person can grow up stuttering and still aspire to the highest office in the country, a position that relies on highly effective verbal communication.

Clearly, Joe Biden is proof that a person can grow up stuttering and still aspire to the highest office in the country, a position that relies on highly effective verbal communication.

If we watch Biden speaking during the presidential debates, we can observe moments when his voice and sound production stops suddenly. At those moments, his eyes squeeze shut as his effort to produce the awaited sound increases. At other moments, he seems to rapidly repeat a sound segment or quickly switch a word or rephrase his thought. Some of his interruptions appear related to delays in finding the right word and some to what he calls 'gaffes' (misspeaking). His speech fluency is most certainly challenged, as he continues to pursue his message.  

His example sends an important heroic lesson to those who grow up stuttering and for the public-at-large. A person can stutter and still communicate effectively. And at the same time, a person can continue to stutter while 'overcoming' the anxiety, shame and sense of 'dis-ability' often associated with stuttering.

A person can stutter and still communicate effectively. A person can continue to stutter while 'overcoming' the anxiety, shame and sense of 'dis-ability.'

How are we to understand Biden's statement that he has 'overcome' stuttering?   

Clearly, he is not 'stutter-free'. Is he trying to avoid difficulties, or to hide a part of himself out of a sense of shame or fear of negative judgment? On the contrary, our impression is that Biden simply moves forward while focusing on his message. Our interpretation of 'overcoming stuttering' is the belief that you will not allow it to stop you from being the person you want to be or from speaking freely, stutter or no stutter. Stuttering no longer defines you. 'Overcoming stuttering' may even mean not noticing whether you stutter or not (see the videos below).

Stuttering no longer defines you.

Dr. Phil Schneider

Stuttering can become a natural, neutral or even positive part of who you are. We prefer the word 'transcending' in our Transcending Stuttering documentary films, podcast and therapeutic framework). 

So perhaps, 'overcoming stuttering' means that one is no longer plagued by thoughts and concerns about stuttering, whether they stutter or not. Reaching a state of being where nothing holds a person back from expressing what he or she wants to say. Overcoming stuttering need not be linearly related to the frequency or boldness of stuttering.

In fact, it is common for people who grow up stuttering to stutter less frequently and less intensely, as they mature from early adulthood to mature adulthood. The stutters often become less pronounced and more subtle with age. Many people who grow up stuttering become more tolerant and accepting of their stutter, and they simply focus on it less as they age.  

Each person who stutters (PWS) adapts and copes with it differently.

Each person who stutters (PWS) adapts and copes with it differently. They adapt and cope differently from other PWS and from one moment to the next and from one stage in life to the next. As PWS and as speech & language pathologists (or speech & language therapists in the UK), it is important that we not pre-determine how a PWS 'should' adapt or cope.  

If a PWS is capable of reducing the frequency and intensity of stuttering interruptions, is that considered healthy or unhealthy?

And who decides the answer to that?  

As speech & language pathologists, our role as helpers and guides is to work hard to resist the natural tendency to judge others. If we are interested in the inner journey of a PWS, we need to ask them the questions, to listen to their responses, and to seek to understand their narrative. 

Ultimately, give trust to people to find their way, and hold the hope they can grow up to become who they dream to be —  even president of the United States.

Joe Biden in his own words

Telling the story of the nun who made fun of him in junior high school…
Joe Biden Speech (part 3/4) at American Institute for Stuttering 2nd Annual Gala, 2008.

Telling the story how his mother responded.  
Joe Biden Speech (part 4/4) at American Institute for Stuttering 2nd Annual Gala, 2008.

Talking about overcoming stuttering and how he deals with it, to this day. (Watch til the end where Anderson Copper mention his mom mom was a person who stutters.) Town hall in New Hampshire, 2020.

The paradox on display. *Many young people and adults who stutter, are unaware of their own moments of disfluency.
Joe Biden to Mike Allen on Axios on HBO: "Look, the mistakes I make are mistakes. And some people think I still stutter. I don't think of myself that way."

Joe Biden reflects in younger years of severe stuttering, bullying and the resilience earned through his life.

Brayden Harrington gives Joe Biden advice and encouragement - "It's ok to stutter." And Joe responds… "He has such heart, maturity beyond his years…. Watch this kid!"

This article was originally published on Dr. Phil Schneider and Uri Schneider's website schneiderspeech.com and is reproduced here with permission from the authors.

Joe Biden image courtesy of William Thomas Cain, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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