Former Vice President Joe Biden said this week it took years of practice, confidence and reinforcement to overcome a childhood stutter — even so, he still occasionally struggles with it to this day.
“Stuttering, when you think about, is the only handicap that people still laugh about, that still humiliate people about,” he responded when asked about advice to give to someone with a stutter. “If I said to you when I was a kid I had a cleft pallet or a withered arm, no one would smile.”
To work on his public speaking, Biden, 77, said he used to practice for hours in front of the mirror by reading poems by William Butler Yeats or Ralph Waldo Emerson. He added that he would shine a flashlight in his face while speaking because he would “contort [his] face and it was embarrassing.”
“Things that people cannot control, is not their fault. No one has a right…to mock it and make fun of it,” Biden says on his lifelong struggle with stuttering. “We just have to reach out a little more for people…We don’t do it enough. We have to heal this country.” #CNNTownHall pic.twitter.com/NOWhzDoRFp— CNN (@CNN) February 6, 2020
“I didn’t have professional help,” he continued, going on to credit his mother for instilling confidence in him.
“I had a mother with a backbone like a ramrod,” Biden said. “She would look at me and say ‘Look at me Joey, you’re handsome Joey, you’re smart, you’re a good athlete Joey. Don’t let this define you, Joey. Remember who you are.'”
He said his mother’s words would “reinforce” him, which “really matters.”
Believing in your child is important, Biden explained. In his view, “the worst thing a parent can do is finish a kid’s sentence.”
Though Biden admitted he still stutters “occasionally, when I find myself really tired” he has made tremendous strides with his impediment, now using his experiences to help others.
“I deal with about 15 stutterers I keep in contact with all the time,” Biden said. “The point I make to these young people that I still work with, is that in fact it’s critically important for them not to judge themselves by their speech and not let that define them.”
When an audience member shared the story of a struggling student, Biden said, “I’ll give you my phone number … they can call me. I’ll give you a private number.”
Biden has been open about his speech problems in the past, including in a recent article in The Atlantic. He’s said it’s been decades since he stuttered like he did when he was growing up.
He was similarly candid to PEOPLE in 2011, recounting painful childhood bullying that he endured because of his stutter. “You get so desperate, you’re so embarrassed,” Biden remembered then.
He has also spoken out about how President Donald Trump reminds him of the bullies who made fun of him for his speech when he was younger.
“The idea that I’d be intimidated by Donald Trump? He’s the bully that I knew my whole life,” he told CNN last July. “He’s the bully that I’ve always stood up to. He’s the bully that used to make fun of me as a kid with a stutter and I’d smack him in the mouth.”