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Joe Biden criticized after awkward encounter with N.H. student

Former vice president Joe Biden.Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

Former vice president Joe Biden is being criticized over an interaction last week with a New Hampshire student and disability-rights advocate after he appeared to stroke the man’s face while speaking with him during a campaign event.

The interaction was captured in a video posted to YouTube by Samuel Habib, who has made it his mission during the primary season to meet every major Democratic candidate. The 20-year-old Habib, speaking through a communication device, told Biden he was a college student who took regular classes through high school.

Joe Biden campaigns in New Hampshire
Joe Biden speaks to supporters at a campaign event in New Hampshire. (Video: Handout, Photo: John Lochner/AP)

“How will you support more inclusive education for students with disabilities?” Habib asked Biden.


Biden responded by discussing his support for the Americans with Disabilities Act and calling for more equitable treatment of students with disabilities in public schools.

Biden continued: “You’re smart. You’re smart. Your disability does not define who you are," he said, reaching out and appearing to stroke Habib’s face. "It doesn’t define who you are.”

“I’m so proud of you. It’s presumptuous of me to be proud of you but I am,” Biden added.

The video sparked criticism on Twitter, where it was posted by the Disability Rights Center New Hampshire. Several Twitter users said that the interaction made them uncomfortable and that Biden came across as patronizing.

Habib discussed his feelings about the incident with writer Andrew Pulrang in a piece for Forbes published Tuesday.

“I felt like he talked down to me. And I was mad that he touched my face. Because I have a disability and use a Tobii communication device, he was perceiving me differently than another 20-year-old. As not being smart,” Habib told Pulrang.

“While in some ways the encounter and responses to it demonstrate the progress disabled people are making in the world of politics, it also reminds us how not to behave with disabled people if our intent is to show true appreciation and respect,” Pulrang wrote.


In a statement to the Globe, a spokesperson said Biden has “fought for the rights and opportunities of people with disabilities his entire career,” citing his past work on disability issues, including on the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“He also knows this fight is about dignity and respect for those of us with disabilities and chronic illnesses,” national press secretary Jamal Brown said. "As president, he would lead an administration that works with people with disabilities to put those values into policy.”

Biden, who often seeks to connect with voters on a personal level, especially those who are grieving or who have shared his struggles with stuttering, has at times missed the mark and drawn criticism. He frequently touches people, and several women came forward last year to say Biden made them feel uncomfortable with overly familiar touches or kisses.

As he launched his presidential campaign last year, Biden pledged to change his behavior, and said he acknowledged “the boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset.”

But he described his interactions with women and others as “gestures of support and encouragement.”

Christina Prignano can be reached at Follow her @cprignano.