For Those With Stutters, Trump Mocking Biden’s Stammer Is Frustratingly Familiar

When actor and disability advocate Marc Winski heard former President Donald Trump mock President Joe Biden’s stutter at a campaign rally in Georgia earlier this month, he wasn’t entirely surprised.

“I’m gonna bring the country t-t-t-together,” Trump said, mocking Biden’s recent State of the Union address at a rally in Rome, Georgia, last weekend.

It wasn’t the first time Trump had poked fun at Biden’s lifelong struggle with stuttering ― or even someone’s disability. During his 2016 presidential run, Trump infamously imitated Serge Kovaleski, a New York Times reporter who has arthrogryposis, a condition that limits joint functioning. (Trump claimed that he was only pantomiming a “groveling” reporter with his jerking hand movements.)

So while Winski wasn’t surprised at Trump’s latest gaffe, he was disappointed, especially when he heard the audience’s reaction.

“What bothered me the most were the cheers, laughter, and applause given from the audience,” Winski told HuffPost. “That was appalling and showed that further education is needed. Nobody should be mocking another person’s disability. Period.”

Between 6 and 8 million people in the United States have some kind of language impairment, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

For Winski ― and many like him ― that plays out in stuttering, a speech disorder characterized by repetition of sounds, syllables, or words and interruptions and involuntary lengthening of speech. Mentally, those with stutters generally experience tension and negative feelings about talking, avoiding raising their hands in class or signing up for extracurricular activities that would involve lots of socializing.

Because it’s so hard to mask, it’s not uncommon for those who stutter to deal with schoolyard bullies and discrimination long into adulthood.

Winski has dealt with it all, from the jokes like “tuh-tuh-tuh” and “did you forget your name?” to being openly discriminated against for jobs: “It took daily practice to unlearn this shame and work to be proud to share my unique voice.”

Biden, too, has spoken openly about having a stutter. While he’s never received professional intervention, growing up, he practiced speaking in front of a mirror to curb it, with strong encouragement from his late mother, Catherine.

In “Frontline’s” 2020 “Trump vs. Biden” documentary, Biden’s sister, Valerie Biden Owens, described how Catherine came to her brother’s aid when a nun at his school bullied him, calling him “Mr. Buh-buh-buh Biden” after he’d stumbled while reading out loud in class.

As the story goes, Catherine marched her young son back to school and confronted the teacher to her face: “‘Sister, did you make fun of my son? … if you ever, ever, ever do that again, I’m going to come back and I’m going to knock your bonnet right off your head. Do we understand each other?’”

Caroline Jones, a speech-language pathologist, thinks that unlike most disabilities, people ― adults included ― feel entitled to correct stammering because they believe it’s something that can easily be controlled. (Others think that if the person would “just relax” and calm down, they’d have no problem working their way around their words.)

“Speech impairments are quite different from more overt physical disabilities in that it may appear that a stutter or other non-typical manner of speaking is something that the person could control,” said Jones, who’s worked for over 30 years in the field, largely in a K-12 school setting.

“In the case of stuttering, it’s a life-long impairment and very hard to modify or overcome,” she said.

Between 6 and 8 million people in the United States have some kind of language impairment, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

South_agency via Getty Images

Between 6 and 8 million people in the United States have some kind of language impairment, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

Others misguidedly believe that a stutter or speech disorder says something about a person’s intelligence. “That’s not true, either,” Jones said. “Some of my most gifted students have been stutterers.”

Caitlyn Cohen, a social media influencer and disability advocate who has a stutter, said that stereotypes about cognitive ability are most maddening.

“Having a speech impairment does not make anyone less intelligent or capable. It simply means that it takes a bit longer to communicate our thoughts and ideas,” she told HuffPost.

Growing up, Cohen said she was in denial about her severe stutter. She knew she had one but because her insecurities ran so deep, she’d get defensive and change the subject when people tried to talk to her about it or offer help.

“Being bullied in middle school didn’t help,” she said. “I always felt like my stutter was the reason why I didn’t have many friends.”

When the COVID pandemic hit, Cohen decided to throw caution to the wind and embrace her stuttering, through social media posts that delve into dating and job hunting with a stutter.

Cohen quickly gained a following for her candidness; on Instagram she has over 104,000 followers. On TikTok, a cool million.

“I’ve learned to accept that my stutter is a part of me, but it doesn’t define me,” she said. “I don’t care anymore what other people think or say about it. I’m me, and that’s all that matters.”

While she tries to avoid unnecessary stress and negativity, she felt compelled to speak out about Trump’s taunt. Stuttering is stigmatized enough without having it center stage in a presidential campaign and Cohen, like others, worries that comments like Trump’s could make others with stutters fearful of public life.

“People who belittle others for their disabilities are not only ignorant but lack empathy and understanding,” she said.

Jones, the speech-language pathologist, wishes there were more acceptance of stuttering as a “difference” rather than a “disability,” much like what is happening in the neurodivergent community in the cases of autism and ADHD.

Tammy Flores, an executive director at the nonprofit The National Stuttering Association, also hopes that stuttering becomes more normalized. For those outside the stuttering community, it starts with learning how to talk about it.

“An easy one to know is that we don’t view stuttering as an ‘speech impediment,‘” she said. “Stuttering is a communication disorder involving disruptions, or ‘disfluencies,’ in a person’s speech.”

“Because of the negative stigma behind stuttering, so many people who stutter hide, change their words, or even not order the foods they really want at a restaurant.”

– Marc Winski, an actor and advocate for disability

Stuttering is just another way of speaking for some people, said Winski, the aforementioned actor and disability advocate. We all have disfluencies when we talk ― think of how many “hmm,” “umm,” “uh huhs” were in your last conversation ― those who stutter just experience it more intensely.

“Being patient and allowing stutterers the space to openly stutter and say what they want to say is so important,” he said. (In that regard, it’s important not to jump in and try to finish someone’s sentences when they’re stammering.)

It’s also worth noting that just because you don’t “hear” stuttering, doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Those with stutters quickly learn to self-silence in public, to avoid unnecessary embarrassment.

“Because of the negative stigma behind stuttering, so many people who stutter hide, change their words, or even not order the foods they really want at a restaurant,” he said. “They feel that their voices aren’t ‘enough.’”

Cohen, the influencer, hopes that teachable moments like the Biden example lead to a more “empathetic society,” with less laughter at others’ expense.

“Those who judge and ridicule others could never survive the challenges that individuals with disabilities face daily,” she said. “I think collectively, we have to try and rise above negativity and strive to make the world a more inclusive and compassionate place.”



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