Experts in the disability community say there’s been a dismaying element of ableism surrounding a recent NBC News interview with John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, who experienced a stroke in May.
The on-camera interview, which aired Tuesday, was Fetterman’s first since his stroke. While speaking to reporter Dasha Burns, Fetterman required closed captioning due to his difficulties with auditory processing ― a common experience among stroke survivors.
NBC News has been criticized for its handling of the segment, which experts say focused far too much on Fetterman’s disability and his need for closed captioning, rather than on the content of the interview itself.
The segment began with an introduction by anchor Lester Holt, who told viewers it was “not your typical candidate interview.” Burns then said that “in small talk before the interview, without captioning, it wasn’t clear [Fetterman] was understanding our conversation.”
“It just shows us we have very strict, outdated and ableist norms around who we see as leaders in elected office ― what they look like, what they speak like, what their needs are,” disability civic engagement expert Sarah Blahovec told HuffPost. “I see the intersection of the access barriers to political spaces, and the way that we as a society look at people who have access needs and question whether they should be elected officials.”
Requesting reasonable accommodations such as closed captions is legal under the Americans with Disabilities Act. But Burns treated Fetterman’s normal accommodations for an auditory processing issue as a “gotcha,” said Cara Reedy, director of the Disabled Journalists Association.
“I just find it upsetting that a journalist didn’t take time to research auditory processing disorders before interviewing,” Reedy told HuffPost. “That seems like she was unprepared based on her and probably other people in the newsroom’s biases. Who approved that framing? She didn’t make these decisions on her own.”
Blahovec said that when people use perceived medical conditions and disabilities to cast doubt on whether a candidate should serve in office, it detracts from what people should be focusing on: ideas and policies. For example, Fetterman has expressed support for a national law that would effectively reinstate the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling that was overruled in June.
Fetterman’s health and ability to serve as senator have been a major focus of the race following his stroke, which comes as no surprise to the disability community.
“Society has a long history in co-opting the bodies of disabled people, and feeling like it is perfectly all right for people with disabilities to have our abilities [and] the personification of our conditions questioned in the public space, in a way that is pervasive, inappropriate and fundamentally unprofessional,” said Rebecca Cokley, U.S. disability rights program officer at the Ford Foundation.
Fetterman is running against Republican Mehmet Oz, a celebrity physician whose campaign has mocked Fetterman’s recovery in a series of ableist attacks. Additionally, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) expressed doubts about Fetterman serving in the Senate, questioning whether he’s “able to communicate effectively” and “engage with colleagues.”
Burns has said that her remarks about Fetterman shouldn’t be seen as commentary on his fitness for the Senate. But Republicans have amplified her remarks in the hopes of boosting Oz’s chances in a tightening race.
Fetterman is not the first public figure to be criticized through an ableist lens.
Cokley points out that other public officials have been criticized for supposedly struggling to drink water, or for taking long pauses during debates. The issue crosses party lines: Even critics of former President Donald Trump (who himself famously mocked a disabled reporter at a rally) have argued in the past that he is unfairly attacked on medical grounds. Similarly, President Joe Biden has been ridiculed for his struggles with stuttering.
“Disability seems to be an equal-opportunity target for groups of individuals who are looking to blanket-disqualify an individual for public service,” Cokley said. “I think that disability as a community is still very much associated with weakness and inability.”
Ableism regarding cognitive ability is rampant in politics, Blahovec said. “There’s a lack of understanding around what people with cognitive disabilities are capable of, and blanket assumptions that they shouldn’t serve in elected office,” she said. “If they are qualified to serve in elected office [and] if they can do the job, then they should be able to.”
“We shouldn’t be making a blanket judgment that anyone with a cognitive disability can’t serve in any elected office,” she added. “There’s so much nuance to this and what this looks like and what those accommodations can be.”
With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic causing a rise in cognitive disabilities and brain fog, Blahovec wonders what the future holds, in terms of who’s considered fit for elected office. Cokley said it’s important to think about what qualities we’re looking for in our leaders.
“I think this is for the individual to think through, I think it’s for the parties to think through,” Cokley said. “I think it’s for a nation to collectively think through. Why do we continue to see disability as manifestly unjust and people with disabilities as undeserving across a multitude of categories?”