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‘Pure, unvarnished, courage’: A 13-year-old ‘regular kid’ with a stutter gave a must-watch Democratic convention speech

Brayden Harrington, a boy who stutters, spoke Aug. 20 at the Democratic National Convention, explaining how meeting presidential nominee Joe Biden inspired him. (Video: The Washington Post)

Twenty seconds into his speech to the Democratic National Convention on Thursday, Brayden Harrington started to stutter.

He knew he would — it was the reason the 13-year-old was addressing millions of viewers from his bedroom. As he had explained to kick off his speech, his life had changed after meeting former vice president Joe Biden in February.

“He told me that we were members of the same club. We ... ” Brayden said, shutting his eyes as he drew out an “s” sound, willing the word to emerge: “... stutter.”

And then, he kept going — smiling, poised, and delivering a powerful message about how Biden, who has spoken openly of his battle with a speech impediment, had inspired him to reach higher.

On a night when Biden accepted the Democratic presidential nomination and a parade of notables offered their visions for America, Brayden’s two-minute speech may have had the most visceral impact. A video of his address shared on Twitter by the Democratic National Convention had been viewed more than 3 million times by early Friday.

“Speaking is hard for me too, Brayden. But as you know, practice and purpose help,” tweeted former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who spoke Wednesday at the convention about her fight to speak again after being shot in the head in 2011. “Thank you for your courage and for the great speech!”

For many viewers, and for Biden’s campaign, Brayden’s story not only demonstrated the Democratic nominee’s tenacity and compassion, it drew a stark contrast with President Trump, who mocked a journalist with a disability in 2015 and has been often critiqued for an apparent lack of empathy.

Biden’s stutter, a neurological condition that affects roughly 70 million people worldwide, emerged when he was a child, he told the Atlantic’s John Hendrickson earlier this year. At times, he was tormented for it. He recalled one nun at school calling him “Mr. Buh-Buh-Buh-Biden” and demanding that he repeat a passage from a book, and high school classmates nicknaming him “Dash” — as in Morse code staccato.

As a young teen, though, he learned ways to cope: reciting poetry in his room, learning full phrases instead of individual words.

Biden shared many of those same tips with Brayden. They met on Feb. 4 at campaign event in Concord, N.H., where Biden offered him words of encouragement on the rope line. When Brayden grew visibly emotional, the candidate invited him backstage, where he showed how he marked up his speeches to remember where to take breaks between words.

Brayden used the same tips in his speech on Thursday.

“He showed me how he marks his addresses, to make them easier to say out loud. So I did the same thing today,” Brayden said, holding up a copy of his speech.

As Brayden spoke, he regularly paused, visibly fighting to produce several words. But he never lost his cool as he delivered the whole speech.

“I’m just a regular kid,” he said, “and in a short amount of time, Joe Biden made me more confident about something that’s bothered me my whole life.”

His performance, and his message of perseverance, were met with wide acclaim on social media and elsewhere — particularly from others who have worked to overcome a stutter.

“Brayden Harrington, the 13-year-old boy with a stutter. Pure, unvarnished, courage,” tweeted journalist and former television anchor Dan Rather.

Hendrickson, the Atlantic journalist, who has written about his own stutter, called it the “best speech” of the convention. “Consider the emotional maturity it takes at Brayden’s age to talk about his personal struggle — especially when that personal struggle is talking, when it’s hard to talk at all, when it hurts to speak,” he wrote in the Atlantic.

A few hours after the speech, which he had practiced with his sister ahead of time, Brayden told The Washington Post that he was still riding high on the emotions.

“I feel very energetic right now. I’m very happy that I got to give the speech,” he said. “I have trouble talking and that just makes me feel way more happy to be able to talk to the people who have a stutter.”

He said he hasn’t really spoken to Biden since their meeting, noting that the nominee “has things to do.” But when Brayden starts eighth grade next month, he said he’ll bring a new strength to the classroom thanks to Biden’s help.

“It gave me lots of confidence. It made me feel like I was noticed in the world when I talked to Joe Biden,” he said. “It made me feel like I felt the same thing that he felt. We felt the same fear. I just felt like I wasn’t the only person.”