Why Joe Biden's Stutter Makes People Think He's Lying Or Has Dementia

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Joe Biden stands at a podium with a Biden campaign sign on it, arms out, speaking, with an American flag behind him
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Politics can be a dirty game. Candidates vying for a victory — especially when running for President of the United States — will say anything to get a one up on the opposition.

Joe Biden's stutter, for example, often becomes a source of ridicule — or worse, alleged proof that he has dementia or that he is lying. Sadly, that often brings more stigma to other people who stutter — like me.

Fortunately, there have also been some positives during this campaign due to Biden's stuttering, like the speech of a teenage boy with a stutter at the Democratic National Convention. 

But most of the coverage is not positive, and it often misunderstands how stuttering works. For instance, when Vice President Biden went on Morning Joe to address allegations made by a former staffer, Tara Reade, that he sexually harassed and assaulted her in 1993, the Vice President's speech patterns made people think he was lying. 

To be clear, I'm not here to weigh in on whether the Reade accusations are true or false or whether Joe Biden is lying about anything. I believe all accusers have a right to be heard and respected.

Also, I'm not a doctor, so I can't comment on whether anyone — Biden, Trump, or anyone else — has dementia. 

What I am here to do is talk about the general misunderstanding that Biden's unique manner of speech or speech patterns mean that he is lying or that he is dealing with dementia. But I can undersatnd why people who don't know anything about stuttering (other than stereotypes and fictional portrayals in movies and on TV) might be confused.

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Fortunately, at the 2020 Democratic National Convention, a little positive attention was brought to stuttering, hopefully removing a bit of the stigma.

Brayden Harrington, a 13 year-old boy with a stutter, shared how Joe Biden helped him find new ways to overcome his stuttering problem. 

The Vice President first met Brayden on the campaign trail, when Brayden's dad introduced them and shared why the teen came to hear him speak.

At the convention, Brayden had the guts to get up in front of everyone and read his own speech, using a technique the Vice President suggested, and social media exploded with pride over the young man's video. Some people even said Brayden was the best part of the night.

It was nice to see something so positive about stuttering trend on Twitter.

Usually, when Joe Biden's stutter or speech patterns trend on Twitter, I find it disconcerting. The general misunderstanding of how sutters look and why people have them leads to further misinformation and stigma against people who stutter.

For example, the tweet below by journalist and commentator Charles Blow. 

In the age of President Donald Trump, a man who we have seen play to the lowest common denominator of race, sex, and any kind of bigotry, we have seen the decency of politics fly out the window.

In reality, Joe Biden had a childhood stutter, and that's something that doesn't just go away.

While I do believe the best way to wrestle a hog is to get muddy, there is are lines that we must not cross. Unfortunately, there is one that I continue to see people jumping over, and for me it’s personal: the mockery and mischaracterization of Joe Biden’s stutter.

While I'm not a doctor and can't comment on whether he has dementia or any other condition, I can add some insight into Biden's speech patterns, as someone who stutters.

It's important to bear in mind that stutters don't always look the way you may see them in a movie or on TV, with a repeated first sound.

The Stuttering Foundation explains that "stuttering is a communication disorder in which the flow of speech is broken by repetitions (li-li-like this), prolongations (lllllike this), or abnormal stoppages (no sound) of sounds and syllables."

Biden's pauses that Charles Blow noted in his tweet (embedded above), are likely related to his stutter.

RELATED: Who Is Joe Biden's Accuser? Former Staffer Tara Reade Make Sexual Assault Claims Against Democratic Presidential Nominee

There's a lot that is unknown about why people stutter, and we don't know the reasons behind why Joe Biden stuttered as a child. But according to The Mayo Clinic,

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"Possible causes of developmental stuttering include:

  • Abnormalities in speech motor control. Some evidence indicates that abnormalities in speech motor control, such as timing, sensory and motor coordination, may be involved.
  • Genetics. Stuttering tends to run in families. It appears that stuttering can result from inherited (genetic) abnormalities."

Biden, 77, is a seasoned politician. In his career — starting as member of the New Castle County Council in 1970 to being the Vice President to then President Barack Obama in 2008 — Biden has given an incredible amount of interviews, speeches, and talks.

Many of his comments have been scrutinized and picked apart. That is fair; no person in the public eye is above criticism. Biden’s past legislation such as co-writing the 1994 Crime Bill can and should be attacked, in particular. It contributed greatly to modern mass incarceration in the United States, specifically targeting Black and Latino people.

There are several reasons to criticize Biden based on choices like this, including the fact that he did not stand up for Anita Hill during her sexual harassment testimony against then-appointee of the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas.

For all the worthy critiques of Biden, singling out his speech patterns due to stuttering is both unnecessary and hurtful to others who have stutters.

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During this campaign season, Joe Biden has occasionally stuttered or paused in the middle of sentences, and received insults and mockery as a result.

People have questioned his ability to speak and because of this, have wondered if he is mentally capable of serving as President of the United States. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, former White House Press Secretary, mocked Biden’s story of talking with a boy who stutters, saying, “I-I-I have no idea what he is talking about.” She later apologized, but the harm was done.

President Donald Trump also joined in, saying that Biden ;was “angry".

"That’s what happens when you can’t get the words out,” Trump said.

These mean-spirited attacks and mischaracterizations show how cruelly people ridicule and mock those with speech impediments.

As a stutterer, I know how much the attacks and mockery of Joe Biden's stutter hurt — and how they harm all people who stutter.

I have been teased and made fun of because I have struggled to pronounce a word, say a sentence, and articulate myself clearly. I have stammered in front of my friends and family in embarrassment.

Growing up I would wonder, “Why can’t I talk normal like all of the other kids?”

To be a stutterer — or even a former stutterer — is to constantly think of what to say and how to say it. We are always concerned with how we sound and how others may think we sound. It can crush one’s confidence. 

There have been opportunities in my life that I have declined or not pursued because of my speech impediment. I would think to myself, “What if I stutter? What if I get in front of people and cannot enunciate my name. What if I cannot talk?”

Stuttering can also cause depression and withdrawal from public and social lives.

When I hear the way former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during his presidential campaign, there is a sense of hope. Here is a man who has stuttered throughout life, running to be the Democratic nominee for President of The United States.

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To be clear: While I am a registered Democrat, I did not vote for him in the primaries.

I do not agree with many of his past and proposed policies; however, I recognize the courage it takes to stand up in front of people when you have a speech impediment. To conquer that fear and to say, “It doesn’t matter that I stutter. I am going to do this anyway.”

In 2018, I triumphed over my fear of stuttering by speaking at TEDxWilsonPark. My speech, “How I Overcame The Fear of Stuttering”, was about me throwing away the doubt and the fear of speaking, but it was also ignoring the mean, insensitive, and nasty people who have mocked my speech.

I received many emails and messages from people telling me how inspired they were from my talk, but also how much pain they experienced from being teased and taunted for having a stutter.

When we attack someone because of a handicap they are born with, that speaks to who we are as a people. Make no mistake, stuttering is a handicap. Over 70 million people on the planet stutter and there is no true cure for it.

If we could simply stop stuttering, we would.

As a career politician, Joe Biden has many flaws and they should be discussed, but disparaging him or deciding he is guilty of something due to his stammer sends a message that he is defective and that others who stammer are, as well.

This is a contemptuous political climate with many people justifiably anxious to elect a new President. But we should not let that get in the way of decency. There has to be a line. Insulting Vice President Joe Biden because of his speech impediment should not be one we cross.

RELATED: Why We Need To Talk About Joe Biden's Inappropriate Touching — No Matter How Much You Like Him

LeRon L. Barton is a writer from Kansas City, Mo. His essays have appeared in Salon, The Good Men Project, Eastbay Express, Those People, AlterNet, Buzzfeed, Gorilla Convict, and Elephant Journal.

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This article was originally published 5/1/2020 and was updated on 8/21/2020

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