After a series of poor phrasing, verbal missteps, and explosive behavior on the campaign trail, peers and voters have expressed concern about former Vice President Joe Biden’s mental acuity. By way of an explanation, Biden has begun sharing his heartbreaking story about growing up with a stutter.
The bright spot is this has started a long-overdue discussion about the challenges of those who stutter. Wherever you may fall on the spectrum of beliefs about the former vice president’s mental acuity, his stutter is not the problem.
Approximately 3 million people in the United States have a stutter, the specific cause of which is still largely unknown. Psychologically, stutterers are at greater risk for a range of social and emotional issues with higher levels of social anxiety.
As both a speech pathologist and mental health therapist, I thought I might shed some light on the matter. Although I have treated individuals who stuttered, I do not speak for either the speech pathology or mental health communities. Anything I offer is educated speculation and not in any way diagnostic.
Making fun of someone who stutters is never okay. It’s also never a good idea to politicize a disorder to protect someone’s behavior. While Biden may not blame his gaffes on his stutter, others are making that argument for him — if not overtly, certainly tacitly. This is the problem.
Conflating stuttering and mental decline leaves no room for reasonable analysis and risks presupposing any gaffe is the sole result of a speech impediment. Emma Alperin, a co-leader of the Brooklyn chapter of the National Stuttering Association and advocate for destigmatizing stuttering, expressed frustration over how the media portrays Biden’s stutter as “mental decline or dishonesty.”
Austa Somvichian-Clausen from The Hill offers this: “Some have been quick to question Biden’s mental fitness, hinting at a possible age-related cognitive decline (he just turned 77 years old), but it’s important to consider that many of those missteps could have been caused by his lifelong struggle with a speech impediment.”
These defenses raise immediately questions. How is one to know when it’s a stutter or mental decline if 1) theses two things can sometimes look alike, and 2) questioning verbal slip-ups is considered mean-spirited? There’s yet to be an explanation about how to ask the question without being accused of picking on someone who stutters.
And it’s not as though we haven’t been here before. You may recall that back in late 2018 Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) called on fellow Democrats to review the 25th Amendment procedures for having a president removed from office because Trump “casually repeated easily disproven claims.”
A few psychiatrists, in the absence of having met the president (violating the Goldwater Rule for diagnosing), determined he was mentally disordered and it was their duty to warn people Trump “presented a danger to the public” and it was “vitally necessary to have a public conversation about the mental state of our nation’s leaders.” Removing Trump from office for being mentally unfit proved unsuccessful, but opened the door to make mental fitness a “vital and necessary criterion” for the presidency.
Not everyone who stutters, however, is ready to exonerate Biden of his dishonest comments and verbal missteps. Peter Hasson from The Daily Caller, who has struggled with a stutter his entire life, writes, “I’ll be the first to say that stuttering isn’t a blanket explanation for Joe Biden’s miscues, and it’s certainly not sufficient to shut down questions about his mental fitness. Stuttering can only explain why Biden sometimes has trouble articulating what he’s thinking—it can’t explain why he so often seems to be thinking wrong things…stuttering has nothing to do with Biden telling people he was arrested in the streets of South Africa trying to see Nelson Mandela. (He wasn’t.).”
I hope Biden’s stutter ceases to be an issue, and soon. But in the interim, there must be a way to distinguish between what is due to his speech impediment, and what isn’t, without fear of reprisal for doing so.
Perhaps those defending him might illuminate for us how this should be done. This is the office of the president, after all, and either Biden is able to defend himself against legitimate criticism about his comments, or his stuttering protects him from being responsible for what he says, and we’ll have to pull from thin air our own answers for why he says what he says.