Jealous Opens Up About His Stuttering

In his most extensive comments on the subject since launching his bid for governor, former NAACP president Benjamin T. Jealous (D) talked openly Wednesday about his lifelong battle with stuttering, calling it “one of the big challenges I had to take on early, just learning how to express myself and my ideas.”  He launched a Facebook Live discussion by saying, “I’m here to talk about something that I don’t often talk about but is often obvious when I do talk, and that’s that I have a stutter.” The candidate spoke during a roundtable discussion at the National Speech/Language Therapy Center in Bethesda, a gathering that included two young people who have benefited from speech therapy, a teacher whose young son is having difficulty speaking, and two therapists. Democratic gubernatorial nominee Benjamin T. Jealous talks to students, therapists and educators in Bethesda Wednesday about his experiences with stuttering. Photo by Bruce DePuyt   During the 30-minute conversation, Jealous asked the others to describe their experiences, and he offered words of encouragement, particularly to the students — a boy in middle school and a woman who is a junior in college. “If I achieve one thing in this race, I hope I inspire young people who have stutters to understand that there really is no limitation. You just gotta be willing to step out there and be your best self like anybody else.” The boy, Affef Khan, who participated in the event said his stutter led to bullying from classmates. The woman, Caroline Soffer, described frustration in the classroom. “There’s no worse feeling than being in a classroom and knowing the answer to a question the teacher is asking, but feeling like you physically cannot say it,” she said. “It’s an incredible painful experience.” Both students hope to be politicians. “You can go far in politics with a stutter,” said Jealous, the runaway winner of the six-way Democratic primary, a comment that drew smiles and laughs from the group.  Jealous’ stutter has been the subject of murmured discussion since he launched his candidacy, but it’s something reporters and political opponents have avoided, for the most part. He told the group that because he had great difficulty speaking in a debate he participated in as a 15-year-old member of the Young Democrats, he has more recently been having a “recurring nightmare” — that he would stutter in a gubernatorial debate. Sure enough, his opening statement at the first televised debate of the primary was marked by repeated stumbles and awkward pauses. “It can be very frustrating,” he said. “You can actually have a good few months with your stuttering and then it can just come back in a weird [way].” Asked if he was hoping to generate a greater level of public understanding in advance of his debates with Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), Jealous said no. “My hope is I’m not going to stutter when I debate,” he said laughing. Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, a former Jealous foe in the Democratic primary, praised the candidate for his willingness to be candid about his struggle with stuttering. “The more we talk about those things, the more we humanize them, the more we bring them out into the open, especially for young people,” Baker said.  Baker repeated first and second grades because of a struggle with reading.   “The biggest fear people have is that not being able to communicate, people will make judgments about how smart you are.” Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College, said Jealous is doing a public service and helping his own cause by being candid about his struggles. “The vast majority of Marylanders have no clue that he has overcome this,” he said. “If during a debate [with Hogan] it comes through the way it did in the first debate, there is that chance that people would look at it and think, ‘Oh, wow, he seems nervous’ or ‘he seems not prepared.” “To the extent that he can let people know that he has a common speech impediment, it is not a bad thing.” [email protected]

Bruce DePuyt
Bruce DePuyt spent more than two decades on local television, including 14 years as host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the D.C. metro region. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County, as well as a reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, VA. Bruce also is the host of the weekly The Bruce DePuyt Podcast.

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