On the 7th November 2020, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was elected the 46th President of the United States of America. In his acceptance speech, speaking confidently and (understandably) a little nervously, he pledged to ‘be a president that seeks not to divide, but to unify’. On the face of it, 2020 was a year more than most where issues of division took centre stage, not just in the USA but across the world.
The unlawful killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, by police officers in Minneapolis sparked the largest protests against police brutality across the United States, since the Civil Rights Movement itself. The outbreak of the Coronavirus in China, and then around the world, brought death, isolation and financial peril to the doorsteps of billions. Yet, with Biden’s confirmation as President came a change in the tide.
In the following weeks, three major COVID vaccination projects underwent breakthroughs. To tens of millions of people around the world, however, another major victory in tearing down social divides came, instead, from a symbol. The symbol of an individual overcoming unfounded claims of dementia and borderline libellous satire, to convincingly and honestly win hearts and minds.
It was the former President, Barack Obama, who described Biden’s stutter as a ‘debilitating speech impediment’, whilst awarding him the Congressional Medal of Freedom. To those unfamiliar with Biden’s mannerisms and speeches, this would have come as a shock. To the 3% of the world population also stammering every day, however, it was all too true of a characterisation.
What Exactly is Stammering?
Stammering (or stuttering as it’s sometimes known) is a speech condition where words and sounds are repeated or become stuck. Sometimes the words do not come out at all. According to the National Institute for Deafness and other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), it occurs most often in children aged between 2 and 6 years old.
This represents about 10% of all the children in the world and is classified as ‘developmental’. This is because it has been associated with speech development, specifically the formation of neural pathways in the brain associated with language and sentence construction. When these connections are not coordinated correctly, children repeat or stop their sentences by no fault or choice of their own.
The problem isn’t confined to one part of the brain. Rather, it’s all about connections between different parts,Soo-Eun Chang, speech-language pathologist and neuroscientist at the University of Michigan
Aside from this relatively common but largely benign stammer, a rarer form does exist which persists or may even develop in adulthood. ‘Acquired or late-onset’ stammering usually presents as a physiological response to head injury, stroke or a neurological condition. The latter need not be specific, as both psychological and emotional trauma can manifest itself as a stutter. Fortunately, only about 1 in 100 adults are affected by this.
For Biden specifically, it is unclear which type he is classified under. As a young law student at Syracuse University in New York, he recalls attending the School of Speech Pathology not only to help others who suffered from stuttering, but also to continue his own personal development at managing his speech problem. Biden’s courage to speak openly about his condition, and to devote his time and effort to helping others who also share his struggle, has characterised his public career. This made him more worthy as a Presidential candidate than any other, in a stutterer’s eyes.
You know, stuttering, when you think about it, is the only handicap that people still laugh about, that they still humiliate people about. And they don’t even mean to.Joe Biden, speaking at a CNN Town Hall gathering in February 2020
Brayden Harrington, a 13-year-old from New Hampshire who also stutters, is perhaps the most famous reflection of this. In a recorded speech in his bedroom, Brayden endorsed the now President-elect with a rousing and emotional message, after meeting him in the New Hampshire Primary race: “Kids like me are counting on you to elect someone we can all look up to, someone who cares, someone who will make our country and the world feel better.” Harrington isn’t the only person that Biden has personally liaised with either. He has admitted to giving a private phone number to over fifteen young adults who stutter; asking them to contact him at any time when they feel they need someone to talk to without the judgment of hearing them stutter.
How do you Cope with a Stammer?
Sadly, for Brayden and millions of others, there remains no recognised cure for stuttering. Management, practice in speech fluency and communication techniques are the tools to moderate the personal and social embarrassment associated with stuttering. Coupled with this is attempting to remain calm and pace oneself. That, to Biden at least, is the key behind his control over his stutter.
I put hash-marks on my speeches… so I don’t just run through… [and] so I get a rhythm to what I’m doing,Joe Biden, talking with actress Emily Blunt and writer John Hendrickson (senior editor of The Atlantic) for The American Stuttering Institute
Rehearsal and practice are likely engrained in stutterers from an early stage, particularly those who have accepted that their stutter is part of their character in adulthood. To most it even becomes second nature to recite the lines they wish to say in front of another. Whether it’s ordering their usual takeaway meal or simply engaging in conversation with someone new – the discomfort associated with these activities is plainly perceivable. To some their ears flush hot with embarrassment, to others their eyes flood with tears.
And so, another stranger becomes part of a stutterer’s ever-growing circle of those aware of who they are but what they aren’t able to do. That, precisely, is why Joe Biden’s election means so much for stammerers. He is the latest in a long line of individuals who have shone despite their many shortcomings; a stammer amongst them.
Why are stammerers so popular? Wouldn’t someone who struggles with introducing themselves have trouble making friends instead of becoming a household name? Unsurprisingly, actors, singers, writers and athletes dominate this list; the common thread being dedication to practice and an appreciation of prose. Winston Churchill, for instance (the former Prime Minister of Great Britain and Nobel Laureate), was so lauded for his oratory skill that many physicians refused to acknowledge that he suffered from both a stutter and a lisp.
We stand on very firm ground concerning Churchill and his stammer… There was no doubt among his contemporaries that he stuttered.Jane Fraser, qualified Speech and Language Therapist and President of The Stuttering Foundation
When Dreams Become Reality
Joe Biden’s victory speech, his first of many as the next President, has been praised for its succinctness and eloquence, no doubt as a result of Biden’s meticulous attention to detail and preparation. Readable.com, a website utilising algorithmic data analysis, attributed a near perfect score to the speech. It’s open readability provided access to ‘100% of the literate population’ and the use of active instead of passive voice identified a message to ‘take action’ whilst also addressing the question of ‘what the Biden-Harris administration will do next’.
Most telling of the bright future that Biden promises is his use of keywords in the speech. The top three, appropriately, were: ‘America’, ‘is’ and ‘will’. Rhetoric aside, this reverberates the importance of a person like Biden in the White House once again. A husband and father who lost more personally than most can imagine but still commuted 3 hours, between Delaware and Washington, D.C., to see his young children every day. A senator who passed key legislation: banning assault weapon access to civilians and protecting women from violence. A Vice-President who championed the protection of students from sexual assault and the revitalisation of American manufacturing through extending tax cuts to promote organic industry growth.
Joe Biden’s intention to unify instead of divide – to take what America is and turn it into what America will become – rings clearer to the ears of a stutterer than most. His weathered figure cutting a silhouette across the north lawn will give inspiration to millions that dreams do come true no matter what others think of you and that the true measure of a great person is not in their voice, but in their ambition.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with a speech difficulty, please use the following links to find the help and support needed.