I’ve had a stutter all my life. Just like Joe Biden. Becoming the 46th President of the United States of America despite a speech impediment (that in my experience is never totally overcome), is no mean achievement. And that at age 78!
The earliest memory of my speech problem comes from reading my nursery report card. At age 4, it had a comment by the teacher “… tends to stammer at times.”
A few years later in class 2, a few of us were selected for a recitation programme on the radio. One of the supervising teachers was surprised to see me in the group. I heard her ask my class teacher, “will she not s… t… a… m… m… e… r… ?” She spelt it out in front of me, probably unaware of the spelling capability of a 7 year old.
There were good days when I would be able to go through the day without incident, and bad days when I couldn’t finish a single sentence. There were people who’d wait for me to say what I wanted, with patience and those who were dismissive or indifferent. There were people who assumed that I was nervous to talk (which I was, not because I was scared to talk, but because I was scared I would stammer) and others who talked for me to save me embarrassment. There were times when I would feel I would have been better off if I was speechless.
The comedians in our films who make people laugh through their stuttering don’t really help. So many people are still so ignorant about speech dysfluency!
Early on, we sort of figure out what kind of education and occupations we should pursue – ones that would not involve competitive talking, viva, group discussions or debates. Phone calls also avoidable to an extent, the only positive being that the person at the other end wouldn’t be able to see us struggling to get the words out. Or they pass it off as something to do with a poor connection. Anything that could be better handled with writing would find preference.
Contrary to all this, Biden is a lawyer, though the first Lawyer-President not from a T-14 law school.
With time, a stutterer gets to know his/her limitations and works around it. With speech therapy, we learn to talk slowly, stutter smoothly, pause indefinitely, breathe deeply at blocks. Building confidence to face the block is key. We’re told to try not to change our line of thought and proceed to say what we want to say, but it’s hard to always practise.
As I watched Biden debate and talk before the elections and even more recently, I could see how, at times, he was forced to change his words at certain places. People commented about how he seemed to be losing his memory and was confused, but all of it can be attributed to the turmoil that arises when you know that the words you want to say will not come out when you reach there, and you’re battling the block in your mind and looking for different words. Dysfluency is mistaken for not being fluent in thought and speech.
Pursuing and fulfilling the American dream, President Biden today has done the seemingly impossible. And with this we hope that empathy and awareness for speech sufferers will grow the world over.
If you are a stutterer and need help, don’t hesitate to reach out. There are many qualified therapists who can make your life better. NIMHANS in Bangalore and Institute of Speech and Hearing in Mysore are two centres that I’ve used.