- President Joe Biden has lived with stuttering since childhood.
- Many misconceptions about stuttering feed into stigma about the condition.
- Speech therapy and support groups can help people cope with stuttering.
President Joe Biden doesn’t hide the fact that he has stuttered since childhood, and by doing so, he brings hope to many people who live with the same condition.
“The fact that he has spoken openly about his stuttering shines a light for society that stuttering doesn’t stop you from doing what you want to do,” Nina Reeves, stuttering specialist and owner of Stuttering Therapy Services and Seminars, told Healthline.
By being open about stuttering, Biden is also helping to erase the stigma.
“We find stigma and stereotyping is a tough thing to shake across all people who are different. As a person who stutters myself, it just feels good that there’s a public figure like President Biden who is a role model in how he handles stuttering,” Rodney Gabel, PhD, speech language pathologist and professor at Binghamton University, State University of New York, told Healthline.
“That might not necessarily change overall societal views, but it can certainly make people who are involved in stuttering, as well as parents of those who stutter, feel better,” added Gabel.
However, to say Biden has overcome stuttering because he’s president is misleading.
“Overcoming stuttering doesn’t mean not stuttering. Overcoming stuttering means overcoming the idea that stuttering can hold you back. Overcoming stuttering means I can do whatever I want and still stutter,” said Reeves.
Many speech behaviors Biden displays signify his way of coping with stuttering, added Gabel. “The fact is, Biden is showing he still stutters, but handles it.”
The National Stuttering Association (NSA) defines stuttering as a neurological and physiological “communication disorder involving disruptions, or ‘disfluencies,’ in a person’s speech.”
About 1 percent of adults in the United States — or 3 million adults — stutters, according to the NSA.
While it’s not known exactly what causes stuttering, most researchers believe stuttering involves differences in brain activity that interfere with the production of speech.
“If [an MRI or CAT scan] looked at the brain of a person who stutters while they were doing a speaking task, such as reading 25 sentences aloud, and if the first time they said those sentences they didn’t stutter but the second time they did stutter, the brain on the first set would operate similar to a person who doesn’t stutter. During the second set, we would see physiological differences occurring,” said Gabel.
In some people, the tendency to stutter may run in the family.
“About 60 percent of those who stutter do have family members who stutter,” said Gabel.
The following are 5 common misconceptions people have about stuttering and how they can affect those living with the condition:
1. People who stutter are just anxious
Stuttering is neurologically — not psychologically — based.
“Even though emotions exacerbate stuttering, that doesn’t mean it’s a causal factor. People who stutter are not more or less anxious than anybody else,” said Reeves.
Gabel stressed that stuttering is not caused by anxiety.
“There is a caveat because people who stutter when they are children may not show a lot of reaction to it, but as they start to realize internally and in the world around them that how they sound and how they talk is different, then it gets difficult to talk as you try to talk the ‘normal way’ and that leads to anxiety related to talking,” he said.
As a result, living in a community that doesn’t understand stuttering can be anxiety provoking.
2. People who stutter are not intelligent
People who stutter know what they want to say, they just have challenges getting the words out of their mouth.
“I’ve worked with students with cognitive challenges as well as students on the gifted continuum, and clinically and anecdotally, stuttering is not based on intelligence,” Reeves said.
Gabel noted that paternalism often comes into play with children who stutter.
“This is the idea that stuttering must be so hard, and because of that notion, people can underestimate someone because they stutter and therefore expect them to do less,” he said.
3. People who stutter need to try harder
Ease of communication is something that is revered — however, Reeves said most people who stutter won’t reach the gold standard of communication.
“You can’t just look at someone like Biden and think he did it with hard work; that’s how others who stutter have to be,” she said.
Additionally, Gabel points out that there’s the notion that people who stutter are stuttering on purpose and can stop if they wanted to.
“Or you’ll hear some people say, ‘I used to stutter when I was a kid and I got over it.’ The fact is they probably didn’t and if they really did, they are one of the very few who grew out of it rather than learned to live with it,” he said.
4. People who stutter should just slow down
Gabel said that oftentimes, people who don’t understand stuttering will suggest that those who stutter just need to slow down, take a breath, and think of what they want to say.
“That’s not what it’s about. Stuttering is a complex condition, and it’s important to think about it as a condition with symptoms. People who stutter know exactly what they want to say but they just can’t say it easily,” he said.
Rather than offer advice, the best thing for listeners to do is to patiently listen.
“Respond to the message and not how it’s delivered. See the person and not their stutter. Listen and wait and don’t give advice or finish their sentences,” said Reeves.
5. People who stutter shouldn’t pursue careers with a lot of speaking
Research suggests that those who don’t stutter believe those who do stutter should avoid careers that require a higher amount of communication, said Gabel.
He notes that other data shows that people who stutter struggle with employment issues, such as being less likely to get promoted, getting paid less, and working in lower wage careers.
“While it presents challenges, stuttering builds people for survival because they’re dealing with something hard usually at a very young age, but a person can turn it into incredible strength,” said Gabel.
“Biden is a good role model for that, whether you believe in his politics or not,” he added.
While there’s no cure for stuttering, speech language pathologists use different therapies to help those who stutter.
“It’s multi-factored with lots of different approaches. There’s no one-size-fits-all therapy. It’s a dynamic process,” said Gabel.
While part of speech therapy is to help people speak more easily, he said a big aspect is helping people become more accepting of their stutter.
“I use a model to help people talk about stuttering and their hopes and dreams, and from there I can show them things to try. It allows them self-discovery of how they want to cope with their difference. And that’s what stuttering is; just a difference in how they communicate,” said Gabel.
Connecting with support groups is another component to coping, added Reeves.
“Talking with others going through the same thing is a great way to share resources and a good reminder that you’re not alone,” she said.