BALTIMORE (WJZ) — Stuttering is the only handicap that people still feel free to laugh about. That’s according to President Joe Biden, who is open about his childhood struggle to overcome a debilitating stutter.
Five to 10% of all children will stutter at one time. For some, it lasts a few weeks or years. For others, it’s a lifetime where they often face ridicule, prejudice and misunderstanding.
“People don’t give me a chance. They judge me and based on what they know before how I speak,” said Victory Ukaegbu. “Once I do speak (snaps fingers) that is off.”
Ukaegbu is 24. For as long as he can remember, he has stuttered. As a boy in Nigeria, children made fun of him.
WJZ’s Denise Koch: What about teachers and other grown-ups?
Victory Ukaegbu: Yes
Stuttering is defined as an involuntary disruption in the flow of speech or disfluency.
Approximately 70 million people in the world stutter, three million of whom are in the U.S. A number of celebrities and other high-profile figures have stuttered, among them Elvis Presley, Samuel L. Jackson, Nicole Kidman, Bruce Willis, Marilyn Monroe, James Earl Jones, Emily Blunt, Reporter Bryon Pitts, Tiger Woods, Winston Churchhill, King George VI in addition to President Biden.
“It has nothing to do with your intelligence quotient,” Biden said. “It has nothing to do with your intellectual make-up.”
Victory, who’s now getting speech therapy, understands three languages and has a degree in engineering from UMBC.
“Stuttering does not define the person. It’s something they do,” said speech pathologist Yasminah Abdullah from Total Speech Therapy. “It’s the way they talk.”
But Abdullah acknowledges the way they talk may stop others from giving them a chance — as Victory finds when applying for jobs.
“They act like I don’t know what I’m saying or do not try and understand me,” said Victory. “And on phone interviews, if I am speaking they will hang up.”
Most children who stutter begin therapy between the ages of two and four when it’s first recognized. And while it can be caused by a brain injury or trauma, stuttering is most often genetic.
“I have stuttered since I was five years old,” said one of the camp counselors. “I didn’t meet anyone else who stutters until I was 26 years old.”
A new documentary, “My Beautiful Stutter” by Maryland filmmaker Ryan Gielen, takes us to a camp for young people who stutter. There, they share feelings that often include humiliation, isolation and depression.
“Just a couple of weeks ago, we got a call from a family and there’s a young man we know and he tried to take his own life,” said the camp executive.
“No one has the right,” Biden said. “No one has the right to mock it and make fun of it no matter who they are.”
That’s the message the president shared this summer with 13-year-old Brayden Harrington who stutters.
“If more people like President Biden got up on the platform and said listen, I stutter,” Abdullah said, “sometimes I will stammer or I may repeat my words and it’s just my pattern of speech. It’s who I am.”
Victory is a rapper. Many who stutter while speaking are fluent while singing. He rapped for us.
Music allows Victory to share his message: be proud, don’t let the way you talk define you.
“Don’t like hold yourself back,” he said. “Don’t let people hold you back and try to kill your dreams.”
There are a number of organizations supporting stutterers, including the National Stuttering Association, Stuttering Foundation, The Stuttering Association for the Young and the American Institute for Stuttering.
Hear more from Filmmaker Ryan Gielen in the video below.
And another web extra, Denise talks to one of our WJZ directors Tony Scafide about overcoming his stutter.