Being interviewed on CNBC during the 2008 financial crisis should have been a highlight of my career. I had been invited to the studio in Manhattan to explain why the New York State Insurance Department, of which I was then superintendent, was trying to regulate risky derivatives. I had prepared my thoughts and practiced my key points in advance. I was sure I was ready. But when the interview was over, I felt no afterglow of triumph. Instead, I found myself sitting in my car, stunned.
The unthinkable had just happened: I’d stuttered on live TV.
One minute, I was comfortably talking about credit-default swaps—and then suddenly the words wouldn’t come out. Before a nationwide audience, in the middle of a deepening global economic disaster, I was completely stuck, as if in a black hole, for what seemed like an hour.
Eventually I could speak again, but the experience was deeply upsetting. On the Tappan Zee Bridge on my way home, I called my father. There I was, at the age of 45, needing to talk with my parents about what had just occurred. This is what stuttering can do: It can make you feel like a struggling 8-year-old in an instant.
Joe Biden has performed an important service by drawing new attention to the challenges people who stutter face as we move through life. In a recent article by The Atlantic’s John Hendrickson, the former vice president courageously discussed his own struggles with the problem. Biden wrote about his stutter in a 2007 memoir and talked about the issue in speeches, but in interviews he mostly avoided answering questions about it in any depth.
I understand why.
Stuttering is a terribly indiscriminate affliction. Some of our most accomplished politicians, actors, and athletes are stutterers. As a society, we expect these people who live in the limelight—many of whom talk to large audiences as part of their livelihood—to speak clearly and effortlessly, even infallibly. And when they don’t, some listeners are ruthless in their judgment.
More than 3 million Americans stutter, yet people who have the condition are still subject to teasing and mimicry. A young person who stutters is perceived as shy or slow. An adult who stutters is thought to be psychologically challenged. An older person who stutters is written off as forgetful or even senile. When a presidential candidate stutters on live television, he’s treated as if something is deeply wrong with him.
I declared my own bid for elected office in 2009. Even back then I knew of Biden’s stutter. He had inspired me through his book and speeches, and I thought that if he could achieve prominence nationally, I could do the same in my state. It was during the campaign that I first identified publicly as a stutterer. During one of 14 debates—a televised debate, no less—in a hotly contested Democratic primary for New York attorney general, the moderator asked us to identify something about ourselves that might surprise the audience. My answer was that I stuttered. People who knew me could tell that I stuttered, but I had never talked about it publicly before I got that question. And my stuttering was never as much of a challenge as it was during the seemingly endless calendar of campaign speeches and debates.
I hadn’t anticipated the moderator’s question, and I’m not sure what prompted me to answer it as I did. Not only did I find it difficult to talk about anything so personal, but, for reasons I cannot entirely explain, talking openly about stuttering often makes me, well, stutter.
I explained at the debate that stuttering was a profound challenge in my life, and it remains so today. And since that moment, I can’t express the level of heartfelt support and encouragement I have received from many people, including my wife, my colleagues at work, and even political opponents at the time.
And yet why did sharing this intrinsic part of myself take me so long?
After all, I have fantastic parents who never hinted that stuttering would hold me back or define me. I have been fortunate to have access to therapy to help manage my stutter. One therapist told me that I needed to stop hiding it, and that I needed to stutter more. And that’s exactly what I did. For years, I carried a counter in my pocket, like the kind used to tally people going into a stadium, and tried to voluntarily stutter 1,000 times a day. It was exhausting, but it forced me to not only shed the avoidance techniques stutterers often use—which actually make speaking fluently harder—but also move past the shame and embarrassment that so many adult stutterers feel.
Even with the best treatment, stuttering that continues into adulthood usually turns out to be a lifelong challenge. I have been on a 30-year path to greater fluency in my speech, and millions of other adults are managing their stutter every day. Moreover, stuttering is only one kind of barrier to verbal communication. About one in eight Americans—that’s 40 million people—communicate in a way that’s different from what is perceived to be the standard. Some people have trouble articulating their words or lack a certain fluency in their overall speech pattern. Others have a voice quality significantly different from the norm. Still others have difficulty hearing themselves and others. Yet all of us should pay more attention to the substance of what people say, rather than how they say it.
When human beings talk in a straightforward way about tough issues, especially those that touch us personally, we open others to a type of tolerance that can change lives. As it turns out, we also open ourselves.
I’ve met Biden a few times—on the Acela and at American Institute for Stuttering events—and have been heartened by his willingness to discuss the condition that has affected both of our lives. In the same spirit, I talk publicly about stuttering to show other stutterers that they can thrive in professional settings and live the kind of life they want to live. Stutterers and non-stutterers alike share a basic human desire to connect.
As we struggle in this country to be more tolerant of one another in myriad ways, we should also do so with respect to how we communicate. Let us empower one another to speak freely, whether we’re running on the playground or for the presidency.