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A stutterer in an out-loud world: Halifax reporter reflects on Biden's impact

Joe Biden, the Democratic Party's presidential candidate, has promoted awareness of stuttering, particularly for young people. - Reuters

I love to read good writing aloud.

When something is well-written - poetic cadence, sharp imagery, penetrating humour - it seems a shame to keep it to yourself. (My spouse can attest to my enthusiasm for sharing).

I’ve had a magnetic attraction to words since my childhood in Reserve Mines. We couldn’t afford to buy a lot of books but between the collection at Tomkins Memorial and the town library, I was never short of reading material.

But speaking those words, that was another story altogether.

I have a stutter. It was severe enough as a child that I can remember friends mouthing the words that so stubbornly refused to come out of my own mouth. It sometimes took a minute or more to get through a sentence.

Things improved after early childhood, but it remained a big challenge into high school. I can remember being physically ill before I had to speak in class - book reports were a nightmare.

As an adult, my biggest nemesis is the H-word. (That can be problematic when you work at the Herald, write a lot about health and hospitals, in Halifax. Don’t get me started on “How are you?”)

A close second on the annoyance level is that one-letter pronoun from hell. If you don’t stutter, you likely don’t notice how many times we have to say “I” every day. Trust me, it’s a lot. And it’s invariably at the beginning of a sentence so it’s hard to find a work-around.

Stressful times

Not surprisingly, my stammer gets worse in times of stress. Luckily, it's been smooth sailing in 2020.

But seriously folks, on top of the restrictions, masks and other pandemic madness, as a stutterer, I’ve come to dread virtual conversations. For reasons passing understanding, I have way more trouble on the phone or over a computer compared to in-person conversations.

Maybe gestures or direct eye contact somehow provide a bridge for my brain to deal with the verbal flow - I’m sure there are speech therapists out there that would have an explanation.

Speaking of such, speech therapy wasn’t nearly as available in the 1960s and ‘70s as it is now. The only intervention I remember in school was by a Grade 6 teacher - Mrs. Graham, a steely but kind woman, if memory serves - after we'd moved to Sydney River. She photocopied a page from a speech therapy book and passed it along to me. I don’t think it helped me much but I do remember being grateful that she cared enough to try.

I’ve tried therapy as an adult with only minimal results. Maybe the approaches are more geared toward people with a debilitating speech condition. Mine isn’t nearly at that level - in fact, some people have told me they didn’t realize I had a stutter. (Until I start talking about hospitals).

So why am I going on about this? Blame it on my colleague John DeMont. He thought of me after reading an article about U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

His opponent thrives on ridiculing what he perceives as other people’s weaknesses and, not surprisingly, he’s targeted Biden’s speech challenges.

To his credit, Biden has responded by promoting awareness about stuttering, particularly for young people. One of his supporters, an amazing teenage boy from New Hampshire, Brayden Harrington, addressed the Democratic national convention on Aug. 20 thanking Biden for being an inspiring role model.

I don’t have half the courage of people like Brayden, so I’m putting in my two cents the old-fashioned way. I’ll never be completely comfortable in the out-loud world, even though I'm ever eager to share the best bits from the latest John McPhee. (The one at Princeton)

Words on a page? I’ll never shut up about that.

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