Molly Work describes her younger self as a “quiet wallflower.”
She had a stutter for most of her childhood, and as a result, she often kept to herself. She would spend her time listening and writing rather than talking and was afraid of public speaking and making phone calls.
“I knew exactly what I wanted to say, and I just couldn’t say it,” said Work, a journalism graduate student at the University of Maryland. “Especially as a child, I think I was worried people thought I wasn’t smart because of that.”
It’s a common feeling among stutterers, said Vivian Sisskin, a clinical professor at this university’s hearing and speech sciences department. They often struggle with “self-stigma,” she said, a phenomenon where people internalize negative beliefs of stuttering, making them less likely to seek support, employment or treatment.
But for students and alumni at this university who stutter, the past month has been awe-inspiring, they said. The victory of President-elect Joe Biden, who has had a stutter throughout his life, was a reminder of the endless possibilities for stutterers, they said.
Biden hasn’t shied away from his experiences with a stutter. In February, he said stuttering “has nothing to do with your intellectual makeup.” And over the summer, his campaign invited Brayden Harrington, a 13-year-old boy with a stutter who Biden had met on the campaign trail, to speak at the Democratic National Convention.
For Dayna Gager, Biden’s victory was “incredible.” Gager graduated from this university in 2018 with a hearing and speech sciences degree, and she’s part of a Facebook group with stutterers from around the world. In the group, people often ask each other their occupations, Gager said, hoping for any type of motivation.
“Just knowing that another person who stutters can do it and has done it is incredibly powerful,” Gager said.
Gager began noticing that she had a speech impediment when she was 16, and it wasn’t until she researched more that she realized she had a stutter.
But for the next six years, she hid the stutter in public. She adjusted the way she spoke, avoiding words that she knew would make her stutter.
She understands the desire to hide a stutter, she said, and commends Biden for not shying away from his experiences.
“Being able to come out about your stutter is a choice. It can make you feel extremely vulnerable,” she said. “Seeing people who have accomplished such huge things and great things, despite their stutter, and being open with it, it’s very, very encouraging.”
But Nelson Almeida, who has had a stutter his entire life, emphasized that he didn’t need Biden to win to know that stutterers can be successful. He’s met rocket scientists, lawyers and other successful individuals with stutters.
Instead, he sees Biden’s victory as an important step in improving the public’s perception of stuttering.
“In the past, [stutterers] were portrayed as being slow or dim-witted,” said Almeida, who graduated with a degree in kinesiology from this university in 2013.
For Almeida, one of the more inspiring moments of the campaign was Harrington’s speech at the summer convention.
As a child, he would ask his sister to talk to the cashier inside ice cream shops, avoid meeting up with friends, refuse to pick up the phone at his house and order restaurant dishes he didn’t want just because he could say the words fluently.
Seeing Harrington speak in front of a worldwide audience at just 13 years was “truly inspirational,” Almeida said.
“I wish I had a tenth of his moxie,” Almeida said. “This is a person who stutters and spoke with stuttering, and was still not just admired for their courage, but also for their content, their delivery and the fact that they stuttered so open.”
Sisskin, who has worked as a speech language pathologist since the 1980s, said the stigma around stuttering is still evident.
She remembers in 2004, when Biden was the keynote speaker at the National Stuttering Association’s annual convention. At the time, he had just decided to not run for president, and Sisskin recalled his openness about his experiences with a stutter: the teasing he endured and the support from his parents.
This year, though, Biden has not been as open about his experiences, she said — something she believes “no doubt” has to do with the stigma that still exists.
But now that Biden won the election, she hopes he will use the office of the presidency to do more to advocate on behalf of stutterers and erase the stigma.
“He has such a wonderful opportunity to make a dent in the stigma that stuttering has, not only in the United States, but around the world particularly,” Sisskin said. “When people are accepted, and people give themselves permission to stutter, they actually struggle less.”