Tonight’s Democratic presidential primary debate in Westerville, Ohio will be the largest in American history. For the first time ever, 12 candidates will share the stage—each under a degree of scrutiny from voters and news media that most could not fathom. But one has faced more criticism than others for a particular pattern of speech.
Former vice president and now Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has consistently been portrayed as gaffe-prone. Pundits and journalists describe Biden’s speeches as filled with moments of “bumbling” and “stumbling,” triggering questions about the candidate’s mental fitness and hinting at possible age-related cognitive decline. The media regularly uses these theories as an opportunity to explore the issue of age as it relates to the candidate, and to question whether Biden is up to the exhaustive challenge of running for the nation’s highest office.
While some of Biden’s comments are indeed mistakes, not each misstep is a gaffe. Many of the moments where he appears to struggle are due to his stutter, a lifelong challenge that Biden has openly discussed during interviews.
As a scientist who studies stuttering in children and adults, and as a person who stutters himself, NYU Steinhardt communicative sciences and disorders professor Eric S. Jackson has been frustrated by the national discussion around Biden’s speech. Jackson shared a few thoughts with NYU News:
On the science of stuttering:
Stuttering can be thought of as a neurobiological “glitch”—broadly speaking, the neural processes that are involved in speech, at times, don’t function like those in non-stuttering speakers. The glitches manifest themselves as intermittent and somewhat unpredictable interruptions in speech, typically repetitions of syllables or audible/inaudible prolongations of sounds. The speaker knows precisely what he or she wants to say, but in that moment, their body temporarily prevents them from producing speech.
On why you may not have noticed Biden’s stutter:
A common misconception is that stuttering is obvious when it occurs. However, many instances of stuttering go unnoticed: Speech interruptions can be subtle and imperceptible to listeners, and may not look like “obvious” stuttering, especially to non-expert observers. Speakers who stutter may also try to minimize or avoid overt stuttering moments, due to a history of negative reactions from their listeners. Many people who stutter experience a lifetime of being laughed at, mimicked, and bullied.
In an attempt to head off these negative reactions, speakers may stop speaking before stuttering becomes noticeable, or they may change words or say “uh” or “um” if they know they are about to overtly stutter. All of these attempts to avoid or conceal stuttering—which can become an integral part of the moment of stuttering itself—come at a cost.
For example, during a recent Town Hall, Biden avoided saying President Obama’s name to prevent his stuttering from coming to the surface (i.e., he stuttered on “Obama,” stopped himself before it became noticeable, and said, “My boss” instead). What many perceived as Biden “forgetting” Obama’s name was actually Biden’s attempt to get through stuttering as quickly and comfortably as he could in that moment. Biden was subsequently mocked and ridiculed in the media.
On the significance of having a candidate who stutters:
Stuttering is recognized as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. To mock or criticize Biden about his stuttering borders on discrimination, and reflects more a lack of understanding on the part of the listener rather than any fault of the speaker. There are things to criticize Biden about, for sure, but stuttering should not be one of them.
There is also an important opportunity here. Many children who stutter believe that because of their stuttering, they cannot participate in activities that require leadership and public speaking. The fact that Biden still stutters and might be president is powerful for young children who speak like him (e.g., “You can stutter and be president”). The added fact that people can openly discuss his stuttering without passing judgment can convey an even more powerful message: It is okay to stutter.