Joe Biden at a speaker's podium

Speaking Out: Joe Biden, Stuttering, and Disability Discrimination in the United States

In October 2020, CNN host Jake Tapper confronted Lara Trump for a video of what seemed to be her mocking now–President Elect Joe Biden’s stutter on the campaign trail. In the video, Lara Trump was seen saying “Joe, can you get it out? . . . Let’s get the words out, Joe. You kind of feel bad for him.” Tapper highlighted the story of Brayden Harrington, a boy who stutters who appeared at the Democratic National Convention, noting that Harrington was a “very brave young boy.” Tapper pressured Lara Trump, asking her how campaign rhetoric poking fun at speech diversity might make young boys like Harrington feel. In response, Lara Trump claimed to have had “no idea” that Biden ever had a stutter.

There is much to unpack in this exchange, from the sympathetic overcoming narrative of Brayden Harrington to the assumption that neurodiversity is somehow a justifiable barrier to political participation. Lara Trump, for example, defends herself by saying that Biden was “clearly” in a state of cognitive decline, a claim she makes with no accompanying evidence. Such borderline-eugenic arguments are nothing new in the 2020 election season. What is particularly troublesome, however, is just how relevant this 21st-century political exchange seems in relation to early 20th-century American discourses about stuttering. Though over one hundred years separate such discriminatory messages about stuttering, the views themselves remain largely unchanged.

According to the National Institute of Health, stuttering is a “speech disorder” that manifests in “repetition of sounds, syllables, or words; prolongation of sounds; and interruptions in speech known as blocks.” Around 3 million Americans stutter. Demographically, most stuttering is found in children, and most who stutter are boys. And despite the work of advocacy groups such as The Stuttering Foundation and legal protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act, many individuals still face negative stigma and significant barriers in the form of employment discrimination.

While we are paying particular attention to stuttering today, the barriers that Americans with stutters face on a daily basis have their roots in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. The rise of modern scientific medicine around the turn of the century contributed to the medicalization of disability. Simultaneously, physicians and society pathologized speech differences, framing them as problems to be solved. In fact, in medical journals such as The Laryngoscope, a publication for professional otolaryngologists, articles regularly spoke about “speech defectives” in relation to the “blind, deaf, insane, or feeble-minded.” One such article states, “Unlike the insane or the feeble-minded, stutterers . . . possess an intelligence that is normal.”[1] But despite medical efforts to differentiate stutterers from blind, deaf, and insane individuals, university medical programs such as the Speech Research Laboratory at Columbia University undertook experiments that implicitly differentiated stutterers from “normal” people, and therefore put them in an entirely different class from the rest of society.[2]

A drawing of a doctor putting a medical instrument in a man's mouth
Illustration of a laryngoscope in use. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

It’s helpful to understand individuals’ difficulties navigating the world with stutters through the lens of disability history. According to the social model of disability, the stigmatizing attitudes and physical barriers of the built environment are often more disabling to the individual than their actual biological reality. This way of thinking about disability has contributed to important strides in inclusion for people with disabilities, such as pushback against well-meaning and paternalistic efforts to frame disability as inspirational; structural changes to buildings; and important scholarship on disability and inclusion. Examining speech diversity, however, reveals the limits to the social model. In many respects, the social model does not adequately account for the stigmatizing and in some cases hostile public reactions or limiting beliefs toward people who stutter.

By World War I, around half a million Americans had been diagnosed with non-normative speech patterns such as stuttering or lisping.[3] In my forthcoming book, I argue that Americans considered correcting speech disabilities resulting from the war just as important to (re)building strong, capable American citizens as learning to use a prosthetic arm. In fact, looking at the prevalence of groups such as the Four Minute Men, public speaking took on a whole new meaning that aimed to convey the pinnacle of American citizenship through the spoken word. To deviate from speech norms could be frustrating for the hearing public who were eager to listen to such patriotic messages. It is no wonder that the US Army organized the official Section for Defects of Hearing and Speech for its deaf and stuttering veterans. But by the first decades of the 20th century, negative implications about speech “defects” took on social and cultural significance beyond alleged medical deficiencies. Speech professionals at once saw the causes of stuttering in an individual’s use of “smutty words,” a person’s weakness of the brain, catching an illness, suffering a shock to the nervous system, or simply genetics.[4]

Perhaps the best way to understand how stuttering has been constructed in the 20th century is by exploring the life of Benjamin Nathaniel Bogue. In his book Stammering: Its Causes and Cure, Bogue writes that he was a stammerer who spent almost twenty years seeking a cure until he opened his own institute in 1901, and spent at least fifteen years “correcting” stutters in others. Growing up, he found the most challenging experiences were his days at school, where classmates jeered at him whenever he spoke. “It makes me shudder even now,” he writes, “to think of those days . . . the nervous strain, the torment and torture.”[5] Bogue, at different points in his life, became vulnerable to traveling salesmen and quack physicians who claimed to have the magic “cures” to his stutter. He regularly gained employment and just as regularly lost it. After one experience where he was laughed at while trying to sell newspapers, he wrote, “I hope no stammerer ever has a position that causes him as much humiliation.”[6] The message was clear: people who stuttered faced significant barriers to social and economic inclusion in the United States.

But the barriers they faced went beyond social and economic exclusion. Prevailing ideas about speech diversity implied that, left alone and without treatment, stuttering would cause the degeneration of a person’s mental, physical, and moral faculties, and could even lead to criminality. Additionally, as Bogue warned, the stutter – and not the society that marked stuttering as defective – was all that stood between happiness and a life of misery, joblessness, and loneliness. One case he highlighted – he called them the “men who waited” – let the condition get so bad that he grew old, had an “unkempt beard . . . tattered shirt . . . He seemed lost in thought.”[7] What could have been a happy life turned into tragedy. The man who waited, who did not seek a cure, as the message made clear, felt the effects to a disastrous end.

This was the culture that Joe Biden grew up in during the 20th-century. Biden has memories of the schoolyard bullies teasing him about his stutter. Now, he has political opponents mocking his stutter, or claiming that his momentary lapses in speech are due to cognitive decline – a regular argument of so-called experts one hundred years ago. Biden seems to be playing out the same scenario that Bogue and early 20th-century stutterers lived through. The only difference now is that his schoolyard bullies are on the national stage. They are in the White House. They are on television. They are projecting marginalizing messages across America that could easily make children with stutters, like Brayden Harrington, feel unworthy. Now that Biden seems to be surpassing these attacks on stuttering, perhaps his prestige as President of the United States in the 21st century can help break the barriers of inclusion so ingrained in American society and culture since the 20th century.

Notes

    1. May Kirk Scripture, “The Etiology of Speech Defects,” The Laryngoscope 28, no. 1 (January 1918), 15.
    2. Scripture, “Etiology,” 16.
    3. Scripture, “The Etiology of Speech Defects,” 12.
    4. Knight Dunlap, “The Stuttering Boy,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 12 (1917–1918), 47; Frank A. Bryand, Some Speech Disorders and Their Treatment (F. A. Bryand, 1913), 15.
    5. Benjamin Nathaniel Bogue, Stammering: Its Causes and Cure (Wm. B. Burford Publisher, 1919), 17.
    6. Bogue, Stammering, 38.
    7. Ibid., 271–2.

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