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Why We Shouldn't 'Cancel' Biden for His Comments About Disability

Presidential candidate Joseph R. Biden, Jr. has recently been the subject of widespread criticism due to his comments and actions regarding disability at campaign events. While the disability community was justified in being outraged, I believe it should not preclude our ability to have compassion for him and acknowledge his bravery.

In a televised town hall event, Biden pronounced that stuttering was the only condition it’s still socially permissible to laugh at in American culture. The reality is that from autism to asthma, people will belittle the whole spectrum of disabilities. For instance, just two weeks ago, my asthma-induced wheezing was mocked by a passerby as I was rushing to catch a ferry back to Seattle. My case is only a microcosm of the derision disabled people regularly face, and Biden was profoundly wrong to assume a level of disability acceptance that simply does not exist in the United States.

That being said, I believe our community ought to be careful about giving in to a culture of outrage, where we “cancel” anyone who occasionally slips up and makes a statement that is offensive, albeit unintentionally. Too often, our culture revels in gratuitous outrage for outrage’s sake and in destroying people when it could have empathy. While I have been otherwise critical of Biden’s not releasing a disability policy, and for patting a disabled adult on the head in a crass violation of boundaries, former Vice President Biden deserves credit where credit is due. Stuttering affects an estimated 70 million people worldwide, and 3 million people in the United States. That he is so forthcoming about his own condition challenges the epidemic of stigma against stutterers in particular and against people with disabilities being in positions of power in general.

All told, Biden is the only candidate in the Presidential race to divulge that he has a disability of any kind. While entrepreneur Andrew Yang has an autistic child, being a family member of someone who is disabled is not the same thing as living with a disability oneself. Instead of tearing Biden down for his myopia about other disabilities, we ought to praise him for his courage in acknowledging how stuttering has impacted him throughout his life. Moreover, the former Vice President has channeled his own documented struggles into mentoring countless younger individuals who stutter. Although he could stand to brush up on disability policy, his dedication to helping others is admirable. It is one thing to contend with a disability; it is quite another to use one’s experiences to make the lives of others with similar challenges better. In short, it’s not every day that a politician or other public figure will divulge his private phone number to help others who are facing the same disability.

Simply put, Biden is guilty of the same mistake many people with disabilities make when we become hyper-focused on our own conditions. Like the former Vice President, many of us perceive our own disabilities to be the worst, precisely because we are ensconced in the quotidian battles of living with them. While Biden could use some education about the range of discrimination that besets disabled people, I believe the disability community ought to exercise empathy for him. He has struggled with stuttering and deserves to be commended for his courage in coming forward on a national stage about his condition, especially when he has so much to lose as a politician and public figure.

As an alternative to excoriating Biden, we should employ compassion, while acknowledging his fortitude. Instead of canceling Joseph R. Biden, Jr., let us use his comments as a teachable moment, so everyone may learn empathy about the range of disabilities that still carry stigma.