If you have watched a 2019 Democratic Party debate, you perhaps have taken note: While Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, and Cory Booker glide smoothly through their spoken words, Joe Biden sometimes hesitates, stammers, and stumbles. Is he just less mentally agile than his more lucid counterparts?
Perhaps we should cut him some slack, suggests John Hendrickson in an upcoming Atlantic essay. Biden experiences the lingering effects of childhood stuttering that made him a subject of mockery. An empathic Hendrickson, himself a stutterer, illustrates from Biden’s July debate:
“My plan makes a limit of co-pay to be One. Thousand. Dollars. Because we—”
He stopped. He pinched his eyes closed. He lifted his hands and thrust them forward, as if trying to pull the missing sound from his mouth. “We f-f-f-f-further support—” He opened his eyes. “The uh-uh-uh-uh—”
Hendrickson is not the only one who empathizes. As a childhood stutterer who received speech therapy in my Seattle public elementary school, and for whom such dysfluency has occasionally resurfaced in adulthood, I know the dismay of coming up to a word that gets stuck in the roof of the mouth, to everyone’s embarrassment, especially my own. For me, K has been a difficult consonant, and sometimes there seems no other way to call on “K-k-k-kathy.”
But often, those who stutter have learned that they can fake normal fluency by backing up and detouring around the verbal roadblock, rendering the impediment invisible. As with Joe Biden’s debate responses, listeners may notice the pauses and mid-sentence changes of direction. They just don’t attribute the dysfluency to stuttering (which Biden also does not blame).
And so it happens with the great invisible disability, hearing loss. “Can everyone hear me?” asks the person on stage. Given the inevitable answer from those hearing the question, the nodding heads lead the speaker to think, “I don’t need a mic.” And most in the audience likewise presume all’s well—oblivious to the unseen exclusion of so many of us (and hence my advocacy for user-friendly hearing accessibility technology in such settings—see here).
Like stutterers, those of us with hearing loss also finesse awkward situations. At a noisy party or in a restaurant, we fake hearing. As our conversational partner makes unheard social chatter, we smile and nod—not wanting to be a pain by asking people to repeat and repeat. Sometimes our response is inappropriate—smiling at someone’s sadness, or being unresponsive to a question. But mostly, after straining and failing to carve meaning out of sound, our pretending to hear hides our disability.
There’s practical wisdom to socially finessing one’s speech or hearing challenges. But some go further to hide their hearing disability. They respond to ads for “invisible hearing aids” that can keep people from knowing that—shame, shame—you have hearing loss. (Shame instead on the hearing professionals whose ads imply that hearing loss is something to be deeply ashamed of, and to hide.) Actually, the more public I am about my hearing loss, the more comfortable I become at seeking people’s help in coping with it—by finding quieter tables in quieter restaurants, facing the wall, sitting with my good ear toward the person, having them speak into that ear, and using a wireless mic that transmits to my hearing aids.
We can extend the list of hidden disabilities to include some forms of vision loss, brain injury, chronic fatigue, pain, phobias, dyslexia, depression, dementia, and a host of others. Given the invisibility of such disabilities, we often don’t see the challenges that lie behind everything from a child’s misspellings to a Joe Biden stammer. If only we knew—and if only those of us with the invisible challenges would let others know—we all could be less judgmental, more understanding, and more genuinely helpful.
(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com.)