Editor: I recently saw something extraordinarily brave. A kid so much like me, Brayden Harrington, talking on national TV about his work with Joe Biden on his stutter.
Most people think that a stutter can be “cured” – it can’t. The first thing I learned in speech therapy was that you have to accept that it is, and always will be, a part of you. That may be the hardest part.
Some people assume that I’m just skittish and nervous, others ask if there’s something wrong, if I’m ill. Whether it’s from concern or condescension, beneath the words is always a degrading implication that my speech impediment corresponds with a certain level of mental weakness; growing up, I was frequently referred to as “that retard with the stutter.” Sticks and stones? Tell that to a 9-year-old.
There were moments – long, long moments – when I truly believed that I wouldn’t get past the ridicule; that life wasn’t worth putting up with this speech bias. But here I am today, apolitically active college student who puts himself and his stutter out there for the public to see through work such as phone banking, volunteer recruitment and hosting my own campaign events.
You’d think that now that I’m more grown up, the immaturity that I encountered wouldn’t be so hurtful today. It is. But perhaps not in the way you’d expect.
Yes, I get more than my share of giggles as I trip over Vice President Biden’s name (Bs are particularly hard for me), it’s actually the way people are treating Joe Biden – another stutterer like me.
Due to his decades-long presence in the political spotlight, the speech bias that Biden experiences is much more public, prevalent and insidious. Growing up outside of Washington, D.C., I’ve been painfully exposed to the unfair treatment Biden receives for his stutter since I can remember.
However, the ridicule, the jokes, name-calling, whether you’re a prominent politician or a young person trying to find your voice, all originate from the same thing: ignorance.
Here’s what you probably don’t know about so-called “Sleepy Joe.” Biden speaks the way I do, using tricks to get around his stutter. He will frequently stop mid-sentence and start over, abruptly change the direction of his sentence, take long pauses during times when it may seem awkward to do and even replace a word or phrase with something that makes less sense given the context. Whenever this happens, I invariably experience the barrage of comments from peers, the media, famous comedians and even President Trump, reinforcing the demeaning speech stereotypes.
Biden’s struggle against speech bias also speaks directly to his infamous “gaffes.” Yes, Biden misspeaks. People with stutters have to focus on the mechanical action of speaking a lot more than people without speech impediments, so our focus is diverted from the actual content of what we’re saying. As a college student who has had moments like this without a thought of correcting myself quite often, I can confidently say that these mistakes in speech do not mean Biden is “losing his fastball.”
Understanding that speech bias is real is crucial to all of America demonstrating the kind of empathy that Joe Biden is famous for.
The “Sleepy Joe” narrative needs to end. Speech bias needs to end. This particular issue will not affect most people personally, but it is the responsibility of every person to take accountability for the things they say, and understand the effects they have on people.
Gus Nathanson, Arlington
Nathanson was a 2019 valedictorian at Washington-Lee (now Washington-Liberty) High School and now is a sophomore at Denison University.