Joe Biden's Stutter Explains a Lot About How He Speaks. I Should Know—I Have One Too | Opinion

Every time I watch Joe Biden speak, I cringe. Fragmented phrases. Trouble starting sentences. Weird ticks. Strange words and abrupt catch phrases. It's not because I'm sad to see one of the country's most prominent political figures in decline. It's because it reminds me, a healthy 23-year-old, of myself.

Joe Biden and I both suffer from a stutter. I was diagnosed with a mild speech impediment at an early age; Biden said last year that he's "worked [his] whole life to overcome a stutter."

While I obviously can not speak to the state of Biden's cognitive abilities as a 77-year-old public figure (his doctor recently described him as "healthy" and "vigorous"), I can shed light on some of the shared experiences of people with a speech impediment.

Nowhere are Biden's "verbal gaffes" and choppy speaking style worse than during a debate. Biden struggles to start sentences, and routinely gets stuck on the "i" when starting a sentence ("I-I-I-I," he'll say.) He has told supporters to go to the wrong campaign website and suggested parents keep the "record player on at night.'' In one instance, he appeared to stutter while talking about someone else's stutter—a child's, in fact—and was ridiculed for doing so by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the former press secretary for President Trump. (Sanders later apologized.)

I can't think of a worse situation in which to conceal a stutter than during a nationally televised debate. On the occasions when I've spoken before a sizable group of people, I've struggled. It gets more difficult when I'm nervous or trying to impress someone in that group. And it becomes downright impossible to put together a coherent sentence when people are talking over one another because, as fellow stutterers will tell you, the hardest part is almost always starting a sentence.

When you're keyed up, as Joe Biden no doubt is when he debates, your stutter can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. You're worried you're going to stutter and then because you are worried, you stutter more. In college, I felt this acutely when people would ask me where I'm from and I'd get stuck on a hard "c" consonant... "C-c-c-c-c-onnecticut," I would spit out.

Over time, I would avoid introducing myself to strangers out of fear they would ask that dreaded question. I often psyched myself out, sometimes unable to even start the word, "Connecticut." Now, I typically lie and say I'm from New York, a much easier state name for me to say.

Critics of Biden have contended that the occasional mental lapses that he has displayed on the campaign trail over the last year can not all be explained away by the fact that he has long dealt with a stutter and that his age is clearly a factor. Trump, who rarely misses a chance to mock a political opponent, recently jeered that the people around Biden "are going to put him in a home.''

But those who attack Biden over his slip ups are choosing to overlook that he has verbally stumbled in the past, when he wasn't as old as he is now, and that he once even referred to himself as a "gaffe machine." (One example out of many: In 2012, Biden told a paralyzed man in a wheelchair: "Stand up, Chuck.")

And it is worth keeping in mind that a stutter doesn't just affect your speech. It affects how you think and other elements of how you communicate.

One of the most maddening (and embarrassing) things for a stutterer is being called on—as you might be at a debate—and knowing the answer, but not being able to get it out. You panic and revert to odd phrases and weird references to try and mask your deficiency. You may also focus on the stutter, instead of what you're trying to say, and screw up in the process. It's a never-ending cycle.

When I was working for Time magazine as an intern political reporter in 2017, I was assigned to interview lawmakers in the basement of Capitol Hill as they walked—sometimes very quickly—to and from their offices. It was a stutterer's nightmare.

When I once tried to ask Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia a question about Trump's ban on transgender people serving in the military, I mistakenly said to him, "What do you think of Trump's transgender travel ban?" (I was of course conflating two different bans. Trump has not banned transgender people from traveling.) Sure, that gaffe could have happened to anyone. But I remember being stuck on the "w" in "what" when I asked Kaine the question. I panicked. I blurted whatever could come out of my mouth as fast as possible.

Finally, Joe Biden rivals will argue that the former vice president sounds like a buffoon when he speaks, outside of his stutter. He speaks in fragments and uses odd sentence structure. That's not presidential-like!

Stutterers will tell you that one of the best methods for coping with their impediment is a strategy called "circumlocution." Circumlocution does for stutterers what the mobile app Wayz does for travelers. While speaking, the stutterer's mind is constantly searching for verbal paths around certain problem letters and sounds. For me, one of the letters is "w." That's why when I ask a question, I'll sometimes sound like Yoda from Star Wars: "Going, where are you?" Biden may well be employing a similar technique, consciously or not.

In the end, stuttering may not be the source of all of Biden's verbal mishaps, but it can explain some. And while it might be a deficiency on the debate stage, I don't believe an impediment makes you unfit to lead.

After all, the much admired General Electric CEO Jack Welch, who recently passed away, had a stutter. Winston Churchill had one as well. So, too, did King George VI, the subject of the movie, "The King's Speech."

The lives led by all three men point to the fact that, ironically, stuttering can be a source of strength. In my case, it has helped me to more effectively communicate in other ways, such as writing.

Biden, in a feature in The Atlantic published last year, told writer John Hendrickson that stuttering was "the best thing that ever happened to him."

"Stuttering gave me an insight I don't think I ever would have had into other people's pain," he added. Henderson had reason to agree with him. The writer admits that he, too, has suffered a lifelong stutter. (Hesitant to speak, we fellow sufferers rush to support each other.)

At one point, Biden leans into his questioner with a lesson about looking past individual infirmities to search for the "character" and "intellect" in a person.

"Because that's what I tell stutterers," Biden says. "You can't let it define you."

It's a lesson he has lived. "It can't define who you are."

Jack Brewster is a recent graduate of Oberlin College. He has written for TIME, Newsweek, the New York Daily News and VICE News. He is currently developing a news startup website.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​