Overcoming handicaps

I was listening to 13-year-old Brayden Harrington speak about Joe Biden on the final night of the Democratic National Convention. The young man spoke about how the presidential candidate offered support and some tips for overcoming his stutter – activated at key moments as he addressed the nation. I remembered my own years of speech therapy and what it felt to be teased, wondering whether it would last forever.

They sat me in weirdly-lit rooms with giant earphones on, asking me to raise a hand when I heard a sound. My mouth and tongue were probed until I gagged. At one point I had braces on my lower legs, attached to my knee. I thought this was a cure. My mom told me it had to do with bowleggedness and fears of polio.

When we moved to England, I stopped worrying about my heavy lisp, the fact that I couldn’t handle the letter “R.” No one bugged me.  My American accent was already exotic enough. Everyone wore uniforms with short pants and knee socks.


Back in the States, Virginia schoolmates taunted me for the English accent I’d picked up until they noticed how the older girls at our school were all Beatles fans. I learned to keep to myself, filling my world with reading until I could go away to school. There, I found teachers willing to take me on as a drama student and work with my speech impediments. Theater was physical: endless “sound and motion” improvisational games, technical backstage work for those of us not stageworthy.

My lisp disappeared after months of word repetitions: Coleridge, Shakespeare, and probably the same Yeats that Joe Biden told Braydon Harrington about.

Years later, at a high-school reunion, old classmates asked how I had managed to change so much. I’d been shy, awkward. I said I reinvented myself several times. I realized I could be comfortable with whoever I was.

Hearing Biden and the 13-year-old speak, I saw a crossroads I had never noticed. If I’d held my earlier disability up as a sign of accomplishment, I would have had the means of climbing a ladder of achievement, maybe even the beginnings of a political career. Instead, I simply embraced the world that had shunned me before and left it at that.

I was happy, this week, just to see a kid addressing us all as part of our politics. Challenges surpassed.

Read more installments of Village Voices by Paul Smart.