After the debate between Pennsylvania Senate candidates John Fetterman and Dr. Mehmet Oz, I felt a crushing disappointment. Rather than analysis of the positions each candidate took, article after article I read scrutinized Fetterman’s oral delivery. Fetterman suffered a stroke in May and is in the process of recovering; part of what he’s recovering is a more seamless ability to listen and speak with the same speed that he used to.
As someone who sometimes experiences auditory processing delays and has trouble finding the right word quickly, I saw a little of myself reflected in Fetterman. This reaction from pundits and the public alike is dismal at best, and alarming at worst: These traits are not a marker of cognition, and to treat them as such reflects not only a lack of compassion, but a deep misunderstanding.
I had my first experience of struggling with language three years ago, when I was 34. One October morning, I woke up on my couch surrounded by EMTs hoisting me out of my home and into an ambulance. I had just had my first seizure. They asked me a series of questions to help evaluate my state of awareness: the date, my name, my address. These were easy questions; I had no trouble coming up with the answers. The issue was being able to dig out the words for the answers. Once I figured out the right words, the next step was being able to speak them. The lag between knowing and saying was so frustrating that it upset me more than the seizure itself. After several hours at the hospital investigating my health, I was released out into the world, relieved to feel more like myself.
“These traits are not a marker of cognition, and to treat them as such reflects not only a lack of compassion, but a deep misunderstanding.”
A few weeks later, I had another seizure, which would eventually cement my epilepsy diagnosis. Much like strokes, there is a vast spectrum of the impact epilepsy can have on someone’s life. In my own case, I am fortunate that very little changed with my diagnosis, except sometimes I still experience a delay in being able to process speech. I don’t experience this to the degree that Fetterman does. But often a word I want will evade me as I try to catch it like a cat swatting at a string just out of reach.
Recently, I was searching for a particular word, frowning as I attempted to locate it. “You know, more attention. Watched. Watched more. When you’re observing something. Uh. When you’re looking at with a lot of focus. Um ... ” My husband gently chimed in with “supervision?” I was both relieved and exhausted.
As a writer and an English professor, I have built my life around language. I have read my poetry aloud at many events, and spend hours a week speaking in front of students and parsing their questions in real time. It is both a personal and professional identity. Like Fetterman, I sometimes “mush two words together,” as he says. I will jump into a new sentence in the middle of the first one, because the better, more precise way to articulate it will suddenly surface. I cannot speak for Fetterman, but this is an incredibly vulnerable feeling to have ― knowing that I’m being judged and misperceived in public on a regular basis. I am never sure if I should disclose this feature about myself, because it’s not as conspicuous for me: just enough to get some smirks and raised eyebrows, or for people nearby to give each other a quick glance as if to confirm with the other that there is something “off” about me.
Should I consider myself lucky that I’m not forced to announce this facet of myself or my medical record in order to defend my competency? It certainly makes some things easier. In holding back how my epilepsy sometimes affects my speech and audio processing, I am just as guilty of perpetuating it as something shameful. And yet, this is not just about me ― or about Fetterman. According to the CDC, it is estimated that 3.4 million people have epilepsy in the U.S., and that every 40 seconds someone in the U.S. has a stroke. Not everyone experiences these medical conditions in the same way, but I am willing to bet that many other conditions also impact speech and audio processing. This is a lot of people to alienate, and it’s condescending to assume that none of them would be fit to serve in public office or other types of leadership roles solely because of it.
As a resident of Pennsylvania, I’ve been a fan of Fetterman for quite some time, long before his stroke, and well before his campaign for Senate. I am drawn to what I believe is his sincere commitment to the forgotten communities he often references. My epilepsy has made me more aware that there are many ways beyond the obvious to be forgotten, or left behind in the sense that the world moves along without knowing or understanding certain parts of you.
I’m not interested in telling anyone how they should cast their vote, but I will say that someone’s struggles with auditory processing or speaking have nothing to do with their ability to be an incredible leader, and these prejudices should be left outside the voting booth. I am hopeful that voters and the media will take the time to pay attention, and carefully listen to what’s truly at stake in this election — even if the act of listening can be hard, and can take a lot of work.
Lisa Mangini is the author of five collections of poetry and short fiction. Some of her work can be found in McSweeney’s, Ms. Magazine, Mid-American Review, The American Journal of Nursing and elsewhere. She is the founding editor of Paper Nautilus Press, and teaches writing at Penn State.