Will the Fetterman Campaign Teach Necessary Lessons About Disability Accommodations?Roundup
tags: disability, John Fetterman
David M. Perry, a disabled parent of a disabled child, journalist and historian, is a co-author of The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe. He is also the undergraduate adviser in the history department at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.
This week, John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee for the Senate from Pennsylvania, appeared in what NBC News billed as his first on-camera, one-on-one interview since he had a stroke in May. The interview went well and was conducted with Mr. Fetterman and the reporter, Dasha Burns, sitting in the same room, as Mr. Fetterman used a captioning system on a computer screen to assist him with his auditory processing, something he has needed help with since the stroke.
Ms. Burns introduced the interview to the news anchor Lester Holt by saying, “In small talk before the interview without captioning, it wasn’t clear he was understanding our conversation.” With that one statement, Ms. Burns shifted the conversation away from a necessary adaptation to implying that NBC was doing Mr. Fetterman a favor by using captioning and that it was a problem for the candidate that he needed technology to reliably converse.
Her comment suggests that certain kinds of accommodation are illegitimate. Would Ms. Burns have made a similar remark if a wheelchair user couldn’t get around without a wheelchair? Are you wearing contacts or glasses to read this essay? It is our accommodations, often but not exclusively technological in nature, that make it possible for many of us to do our jobs. This is no less true for politicians than it is for the rest of us.
The widespread furor over captioning prompted by the NBC News interview, not to mention the cynical references to Mr. Fetterman’s stroke by the campaign of his Republican opponent, Mehmet Oz, show we have a long way to go before disability is understood and accepted in our society. There’s a long history of disabled Americans serving in high political office, but also an equally long history of both actual stigma and politicians hiding their disabilities over fear of stigma.
Franklin Roosevelt tried to keep the press from photographing him being transferred into and out of his wheelchair. In 1964, the cover of Fact Magazine read, “1,189 Psychiatrists Say Goldwater Is Psychologically Unfit to Be President!” with one calling him a “dangerous lunatic.” In 1972, Thomas Eagleton was kicked off the Democratic ticket as vice president when it was revealed that he had been hospitalized for depression. In 1975, the columnist Garry Wills argued that George Wallace was unfit for office not because of his history of racism, but because he had a physical disability as a result of being shot.
Today, politicians as diverse as Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Representative Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina use wheelchairs, and even their most virulent political opponents generally don’t bring up their disabilities. But when it comes to invisible disabilities, and in particular ones that involve communication or mental function, stigma is trickier to detect and dispel.