Around a small table at a Bethesda medical office on Wednesday, two students and a gubernatorial candidate found common ground.
Ben Jealous, the Democratic nominee for governor, stopped at the National Therapy Center to share his own story of battling a stutter and how it has sometimes come up in his public life.
“I’m here to talk about something I don’t often talk about but is often obvious when I do talk,” Jealous said. “And that’s that I have a stutter.”
Jealous was joined by Afeef Khan and Caroline Soffer, two students who have attended The Stuttering Clinic at the center.
Jealous said his stutter was a source of great stress for him when he was young. He talked about Judge Robert B. Watts from Baltimore, one of the city’s first black judges, who would challenge him to debates in his grandfather’s basement bar during summer visits.
The spirited arguments were the beginning for Jealous learning to deal with his stutter and speak publicly.
“Ultimately, I beat Judge Watts now and again at my grandad’s bar and that’s a lot of what gave me the confidence, quite frankly, to speak in public,” Jealous said.
Jealous asked the students to share some of the moments when they were most impacted by their stutter.
Afeef, a middle school student, said he used to be afraid to raise his hand in class before coming to the center and had at times been bullied for struggling to get his words out.
Afeef said he now tries to tell people about his stutter instead of hide it.
Jealous, who said he struggled himself to talk openly about his stutter until adulthood, said that kind of openness is important to helping create a greater level of public understanding.
Soffer started attending the clinic in middle school; she’s now studying politics and government as a junior at Bryn Mawr College.
Soffer talked about one way the public can help those struggling to voice a word: patience.
Sometimes, Soffer said someone will try to fill in her words when she pauses, but they’ll substitute something she’s not actually trying to say.
“I know that people have good intentions … but that’s essentially taking my voice away,” Soffer said. “… Please don’t take my opportunity to speak away from me.”
The students were also joined by Brooke Leiman, a speech language pathologist and director of the stuttering clinic; Jessica Safer, a speech pathologist; and Daima Cook, a Montgomery County special education teacher, who has a child with a stutter.
Leiman said it was important for actors, athletes and other public figures who have stutters to talk about the issue and show that they still have a voice.
“It’s a conversation that we need to have more of,” Jealous said.
He talked about struggling to get his words out at a Young Democrats debate when he was 15 years old, and his surprise when he struggled and paused during the first debate in the gubernatorial primary earlier this year. “It can be very frustrating,” Jealous said, noting that he can go months at a time without stuttering only to have the condition reassert itself.
If he achieves nothing else in his gubernatorial bid, Jealous said he hopes it would be to inspire young people with stutters to live life without limitations and to foster greater understanding.
“Let’s go out there and just remember, each of us, that people who [are] differently abled or [have] different disabilities have as much to contribute as anybody else, have as much to say as anybody else, even if, at a certain moment, they feel like they’ve been silenced by their own body,” he said.