Roanoke, VA — The sun has set on one presidential administration and risen on a new with a number of unique qualities. Among them is the fact that President Joe Biden is a person who stutters. As one of the roughly 3 million people in the United States who stutter, Biden’s inauguration meant just as much to me as Vice President Kamala Harris’ inauguration as a woman.
Like the president, I’m passionate about politics and always have been. But more often than not, at the various campaign events, meetings and legislative lobbying events I’ve gone to, I’ve been the only person in the room with a stutter. This has led to me feeling like there’s not a place for people who talk like me in front-facing politics, and that the only way for me to be involved is in behind-the-scenes work with little to no interaction with people. Biden’s campaign shrunk those doubts significantly, and made me feel more confident than I've ever been in my own desire to run for office someday. But even so, the good that Biden’s campaign did for people who stutter is often diluted by the misconceptions that surround both his stutter and stuttering as a whole.
Growing up as a person who stutters means growing up being told that you’re only as good as how well you can speak without stuttering. Speech therapy has its merits, and the majority of speech language pathologists enter the field with a pure-hearted desire to help people. When I was 14 I walked away from speech therapy because having become more confident in myself, I no longer felt like I needed it. And since then the way I’ve looked at speech therapy has changed. I’m self-assured now, but would that confidence have come sooner if I wasn't conditioned to think that my full potential could only be reached if I wasn't able to train my stutter away? I’ll never know. But what I do know is that seeing people who stutter complimented with statements such as “You did so good, you didn’t stutter and all!” stings.
This was a statement thrown around often during the Biden campaign, and notably after Brayden Harrington, a 13-year-old person who stutters, spoke at the inauguration primetime celebration. Brayden spoke fluidly delivering the excerpt of President John F. Kennedy's inaugural address that he read on television. And if he wants to consider that a victory, then that’s his choice to make for himself. However, the world complimenting him based solely on how fluidly spoke sent a more harmful message. A message telling both Brayden and the other millions of people who stutter nationwide that our success is based not on our hard work, brains or dedication, but on how “normally” we can manage to talk at a given time.
Stuttering isn’t a debilitating disease, and people who stutter are capable of achieving great things even if they stutter on every syllable. To pretend otherwise is to install a glass ceiling above our heads, and while it may be breakable, it would be better if it wasn’t there at all.
Then, there’s the “o” word. Overcome. It’s a word President Biden uses himself, and something members of the stuttering community have directly taken issue with on multiple occasions. Though the president is within his rights to talk about his stutter in whatever way he feels comfortable, it comes across differently when thrown around by the fluently speaking community and media.
As people who stutter, we shouldn’t and don’t have to overcome the way we talk to be successful. I don’t do Model UN, student government, and public speaking because I overcame the way I talk. I do all of those things while stuttering, and stuttering proudly at that. When I stutter, I’m always more focused on what people are thinking than how I’m feeling. While to me it’s just the way I talk, I know that other people view it differently. People who stutter don’t overcome the way we talk. We overcome the stigma and prejudices propped up by others.
Living with a stutter is living with the knowledge that being the smartest person in the room sometimes isn’t enough, and that there will be people who refuse to take you seriously for reasons completely out of your control. In many ways, the Biden campaign has helped ease this pain. Today, kids and adults who stutter can look to the presidency and see a shining example of what’s possible in spite of our fears. The new presidency, combined with a new era of stuttering education and acceptance, opens the door for people who stutter to live in a country that lifts them up more than it doubts them.