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Thursday 8 June 2023 Dublin: 12°C
Aidan Greene
Opinion If you stutter, you shouldn't have to overcome it - or become a punchline
Aidan Greene writes about how becoming a stand-up comedian helped him to make the punchlines – not be one.

“JOE BIDEN OVERCAME his stutter to fulfil the American Dream.” That’s a sentence I’ve heard and read a lot in the past couple of years.

There are two problems with it: firstly, this implies that the only way that a person who stutters can succeed is by no longer stuttering. Essentially, if Biden had not overcome his stutter he could never have become US President.

Secondly, what do we mean when we say Biden “overcame” his stutter? Does this mean that he is cured and no longer stutters? John Hendrickson, senior editor at The Atlantic and a person who stutters, has suggested that Biden is using specific techniques to manage his stutter.

Part of Biden’s ‘overcoming’ narrative is a product of what I’ve always seen in media as the two possible outcomes for a person who stutters: either you overcome it or you become a punchline. Biden ‘’overcame” his and that allowed him to become President.

But whenever he does ‘slip up’ with his speech, he is openly mocked by the media as being weak due to his speech issues. During one Democratic Party presidential debate Sarah Sanders tweeted “I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I hhhave absolutely no idea what Biden is talking about”, insinuating that because he stutters he is not making sense.

In theory, the US President having a stutter should be a good thing. As a stuttering child I always wanted to find someone I could relate or look up to. I watched a lot of TV shows and films in a bid to find anyone who would resemble me but whenever I did, they were a punchline.

For example, in the film The Waterboy (1998) Bobby Boucher stutters as a shorthand to tell the audience he is stupid and to make us laugh when he can’t speak. In the book and film of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone Professor Quirrell has a fake stutter to make the audience think the character is meek and childlike. As an even earlier reference, Porky Pig’s speech has been a joke since the 1930s.

Eventually The King’s Speech (2010) came along and gave everyone a different view on stuttering. In this film King George VI was never a punchline. He was the hero that we all rooted for. As a viewer of the movie I never felt like it was a story of a man overcoming his stutter. But this is unfortunately the message a lot of people took away from it. After the release of the film a lot of people asked me if I would ever try speech therapy like in the King’s Speech to try and overcome my stutter. Mainstream audiences saw this as a solution to a problem.

‘Overcoming’ a stutter

Part of my personal problem with these ‘overcoming’ narratives is that when I was 12 years old my speech therapist told my mother that I would never be cured of my stutter.

She had seen hundreds of stuttering children and could tell that I would be one of those people who would always stutter. Most people who stutter will lose their stutter naturally when they reach adulthood. Not by using speech therapy or specific techniques or tricks. Just simply by enough time passing. They didn’t have some special solution to the stuttering problem. They were just one of the statistically lucky people who “overcome” stuttering.

It’s a weird feeling being 12 years old and knowing you would never be seen as one of the inspirational stutterers who overcome it: “Aidan Greene overcame his stutter” would never be a line added to my biography to make whatever I achieve seem more impressive. It appeared that I was destined to become a punchline.

Part of becoming a stand-up comedian who openly talked about stuttering meant that I would be making the punchlines, I wouldn’t become one. And while I have accepted the idea that I will never overcome my stutter it seemed other people have not.

Just like with The King’s Speech, there is a disconnect between the stammering message and this persistent ‘overcoming’ narrative.

Indeed, after a lot of my shows I will receive direct messages about potential cures for stuttering, ranging from singing instead of speaking to staging an exorcism to get the devil out of me.

People often come up to me and tell me anecdotes about techniques which have helped their friends with their stutter. These people all fail to consider one thing, even after I tell them: I am okay with stuttering.

This is what inspired me to write my recent show I Know What You Did Last Stammer. The show presents several alternative realities as to what my life could have been if I had of been cured of my stutter at various crucial times.

I wanted to show those people what my life could have been if I did not stutter and show that I don’t need to overcome my stutter to avoid being a punchline.

It’s the cultural narrative that we all need to overcome – not my stutter.

Aidan Greene can be found on Instagram at @greenescreen

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