Joe Biden reveals childhood stuttering at Lab School gala

Spring 2010

Who knew Joe Biden stuttered as a child? Indeed, the loquacious vice president is more known for his steady torrent of words, which, coupled with an outgoing personality, belie the awkward, often humiliating, hurdles he had to overcome as a child. 

In this light, it is easy to see why The Lab School of Washington chose Biden to be the keynote speaker at its 25th anniversary gala last November. Its literature quotes Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer, who believes that “any disability may function as an ability if we view it from a new perspective.” 

The Lab School has focused on the abilities of motivated students (grades 1–12) with moderate-to-severe learning disabilities. The first school of its type in the nation, its mission is to transform lives for students with attention deficit disorder, dyslexia, and other learning differences. It uses an innovative arts-based curriculum — both experiential and multi-sensory — to help young people overcome difficulties with reading, spelling, writing, and math, while preparing them for a range of college and career choices. 

At the gala, the Lab School filled the National Building Museum with 1,300 guests and supporters of the school. When ABC News pundit George Stephanopoulos introduced Vice President Biden, he assured the audience that “Biden always makes good copy.”

But this evening, Biden won over the audience by telling The Lab School that he was one of them. He noted that throughout history, “to be great is to be different,” mentioning famous figures with learning disabilities, such as Jesus and Luther.

When growing up, Biden said, he had a terrible stutter, which he demonstrated to the crowd. “I co- co-couldn’t talk.”

“God’s gift to me was my stuttering,” he said. But he also warned, “Don’t let your learning disability define you.” As a child, Biden worked on relieving his stuttering by reciting poetry in front of the mirror while monitoring his facial reactions. Overcoming the disability and the outcast status it gave him made him that much stronger, and more empathetic later in life, he noted.

“Time and time again, my parents taught me that being different is no barrier to success,” Biden said. “And the measure of a man isn’t how often he is knocked down but how quickly he gets up.” 

Biden had won over the audience immediately with his remarks, but also got a special cheer when he mentioned he might be in trouble with his grandchildren because he chose The Lab School event over a competing Sidwell Friends School event, where they attend. 

The Lab School gala honored William E. Milliken, founder and vice chair of Communities in Schools, Jonathan Mooney, author of Learning Outside the Lines and The Short Bus, and actress Lara Flynn Boyle.