Kwame Raoul has something in common with Joe Biden: dealing with a speech problem

The Illinois attorney general’s childhood speech difficulties weren’t necessarily a stutter but posed similar challenges.

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Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul overcame speech difficulties.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul overcame speech difficulties.

Mark Brown / Sun-Times

Like most people who saw 13-year-old Brayden Harrington fight through his stutter to deliver a courageous speech at the Democratic National Convention, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul was moved.

It struck a particular chord with Raoul because he has spent a lifetime working to manage his own speech difficulties.

Raoul, 55, doesn’t stutter in the classic sense of repeating or stumbling over certain sounds or words, although he notes “some have perceived it as such.”

Raoul describes his problem more as a “hesitancy in speech,” a slow, halting style of speaking that has created similar life hurdles — from being the object of childhood classmates’ laughter to being afraid to speak up in school.

“I definitely have a lot of pauses in my speech,” said Raoul, who still sometimes finds his speaking a subject of ridicule on social media.

Raoul calls his problem a speech “impediment” — a term frowned on by the professional association for speech-language pathologists. Raoul has never been evaluated by a speech pathologist, never been diagnosed with a speech condition and never received treatment for it, though he’s very much aware of its impact. 

“It’s amazing that I have the type of career that I have because I used to be just totally afraid of public speaking,” he said.

I became aware of Raoul’s challenges during his 2018 campaign for attorney general. It was evident he was not at ease in situations demanding quick soundbites and sometimes struggled during debates in a manner surprising for someone known for his grasp of complex issues.

I requested an interview after Harrington’s convention speech, in which the boy credited Joe Biden, also a childhood stutterer, with helping him gain confidence. 

Though speech professionals believe stuttering is rooted in genetic and neurological factors, Raoul traces his issues to his bilingual upbringing by Haitian immigrant parents, who alternated at home among Haitian Creole, French and English. His best friends were his Haitian cousins, who came every summer for extended stays and spoke only French.

“I do remember being embarrassed in school sometimes when I would mistakenly speak French,” Raoul said through a face mask during a socially distanced interview at his Chicago office. “As a result of it, I would sometimes overthink what I’m about to say. So it leads, to this day, to a sort of hesitancy in speech sometimes, where I pause, and I overthink simple sentences.”

That resulted in Raoul having no desire to participate in class, particularly language arts.

It didn’t help that Raoul was — and remains — a “slow reader,” which he attributes to “some sort of reading disability,” also never diagnosed.

Raoul feared being called on by his teachers.

“If I’d screw up, I’d be hugely embarrassed and just want to disappear,” he said.

Raoul, a product of University of Chicago Lab School and the son of a doctor, credits his high school English teacher Darlene McCampbell with helping him find confidence.

Even then, Raoul came out of high school thinking he needed to look for a math-related career, as that was his strongest subject. He enrolled at the Illinois Institute of Technology to study engineering but didn’t like it, then jumped to computer science before finding his calling in political science at DePaul.

Raoul said he also was fortunate to have a law school professor with his own reading disability who taught him to make it an asset by reading more carefully.

“The fact that, when I read, I have to reread, I’ve learned to embrace it as a benefit. As long as people are patient enough,” he added with a laugh.

Raoul believes he is underestimated at times by those who mistakenly judge his intelligence based on his deliberative speech.

“I sensed it somewhat during the campaign, and I think initially in the Legislature. But then that disappeared as I just worked.”

One of the ironies is Raoul took the Senate seat of Barack Obama, one of the smoothest orators in Illinois political history and “was definitely intimidated by that” early on.

Raoul said his main coping mechanisms are preparation and mastery of the subject matter on which he speaks. He also finds he speaks more fluidly when he’s passionate about the topic.

I hope someone will find inspiration from Raoul, as Brayden Harrington found from Biden.

As Raoul told me: “You need people along the way to let you know it’s OK.”

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