Patrick Brown’s speech impediment gave him strengthMagnolia
At school, he was known as the kid with the stutter, and teased. Petrified to speak in front of the class.
Today, there’s scant trace of a speech impediment — and where Patrick Brown once found it tough to talk, as leader of Ontario’s opposition party he now spends his days talking tough.
Overcoming the stutter, and his fear of public speaking, took years of speech therapy in elementary school. In high school, he was still nervous about being called on by teachers. It was a long, tough life lesson, but one Brown considers life-changing.
The experience was “traumatizing as a child — you get teased in the schoolyard, you can’t speak and you can’t get your words out; kids make jokes at your expense, based on the stuttering,” he told the Star. “But you know, I look back on it, and I think adversity makes you stronger, and I just feel very fortunate that I had such love in my family to help me through it, and the fact that they never gave up on me.
“Who would have thought that a kid that couldn’t speak is now leading a political party, where my job is to speak all day?”
Until now, Brown has publicly revealed few details about his stuttering, although reference was made to it last year at the convention when he won the Progressive Conservative leadership. Delegates there were also asked to donate to the Toronto-based Speech and Stuttering Institute, which focuses on research and training therapists across the province, at the behest of departing leader Tim Hudak, for whom the cause is also important.
How Brown handled such adversity in his childhood provides insight into his perseverance, and drive, today. Although he doesn’t remember how bad it was in the earliest days, he’s seen the home videos. “It was very difficult to get my words out . . . to the point that it was labour to speak. Maybe I didn’t stumble on every word, but I probably stumbled on one of every three or four or five words.”
His grandmother, well aware of his struggles, spotted an ad in the paper for what was then experimental speech therapy at Toronto’s Clarke Institute. She sent it to his mother, Judy, a teacher, who began working part time so she could take him to his appointments each week, starting from about age 4.
As other kids played dodge ball in the schoolyard, she’d pull up in her “beat up old Firefly car” to get him, and take him for a treat.
“I looked forward, in some sense, to the fact that it was associated with something good — the tools and tricks of parenting.”
The therapist encouraged him to speak slowly, think about his words, and practise those he stumbled over. The improvement took several years. “It was gradual and it was hard work — and it was having a mother that would pick me up all the time from school and take me all the time to the speech therapist . . . that’s a sacrifice that I am very cognizant of.”
Kids were mean, but his mother told him not to let it get to him. “I adapted,” he said. “What’s the saying — sticks and stones can break your bones but words can never hurt you?’ I just learned how to turn the other direction.”
The teasing subsided, but losing his fear of public speaking took time. Even in Grade 10, he remembers feeling anxious. “I look back at it now, and I’ve certainly come a long way. . . . I remember in (a class on) world religion, praying that I wouldn’t be called upon for a presentation.”
Brown credits politics. After meeting Jean Charest, he helped arrange for the then-federal PC leader to speak at his high school and introduced him in front of the crowd gathered in the auditorium.
Public speaking is now second nature, but there are still moments Brown is reminded of the stutter — once in particular when a journalist pointed out on social media that he mispronounces a word.