How Joe Biden’s stutter helps people around the world gain confidence

Photo credit: Flickr/Gage Skidmore

When Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks to voters, debates on stage, or conducts interviews with late night talk show hosts, he is working to manage a stutter.

In advance of International Stuttering Awareness Day and the next U.S. presidential debate, we spoke with Carla Monteleone, a clinical instructor with the faculty of medicine’s School of Audiology and Speech Sciences and a registered speech-language pathologist.

She explains how stuttering impacts quality of life and why confidence is a central component to managing the speech disorder.

What is stuttering?

Stuttering is an involuntary disruption in speech, that can be characterized by sound, syllable, or word repetitions, prolongation of sounds or interruptions in speech, called blocks. Someone who stutters knows precisely what they want to say but are, at that time, unable to say it due to these stuttering behaviours.

Carla Monteleone

How does stuttering impact a person’s life?

Stuttering can lead to anxiety and affect an individual’s quality of life. School-aged children may be less willing to have conversations with peers, ask questions, speak in class or attend extracurricular activities where speaking is involved. For adults, stuttering may affect their ability to communicate with confidence, preventing them from clearly conveying their thoughts, personally and professionally.

What can someone do to manage a challenging stutter?

As speech-language pathologists (SLP), we can help a person learn to accept their stuttering. The iceberg analogy to stuttering illustrates that the physical component of stuttering, observable disruptions in airflow, is only part of the challenge. We also work to address challenges below the surface by helping people who stutter have positive attitudes towards their stuttering and speaking in general. A licensed SLP has various ways to help people manage their stuttering. In many cases we help the individual develop fluency skills and strategies to become a more confident communicator.

Effective stuttering therapy is tailored to the needs of the individual and looks different for everyone. SLPs educate clients and their families about stuttering, provide tools to shape fluency and modify the stutter, and strategies to help enhance participation in daily activities.

What can we learn from watching U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden, who famously struggles with stuttering?

A stutter does not define who you are or your potential to succeed. I encourage my clients to not focus on the stutter but instead, focus on the message they’re conveying.

Having Joe Biden speak publicly now is inspiring for anyone who struggles with a stutter. He is an excellent example of how a stutter, or any speech impediment, doesn’t have to be something that holds you back. The 13-year-old boy who sent a widely-seen video message to Biden kept speaking throughout the video despite his stutter. It was his message that people remember.

If you’re a person with a stutter and you want to be the next prime minister of Canada, go for it! Lack of confidence is often what can hold people back, not the stutter.