Ever since Democratic Pennsylvania Senate nominee John Fetterman suffered a stroke in May, his critics have relentlessly questioned his fitness for office. Fetterman himself acknowledged this during last week's debate with Republican nominee Dr. Mehmet Oz, informing voters in advance that he "might miss some words" and "mush two words together" but that, despite being "knocked down" by the stroke, "I'm going to keep coming back up."
Fetterman's warning did not seem to change the conversation about whether his recent stroke should be relevant to his Senate campaign. The debate moderators repeated the controversial request that Fetterman release his medical records, and pollsters are either saying survey outcomes between Fetterman and Oz since the debate are either breathlessly close or suggest Oz has benefited from a slight bounce. The attacks on Fetterman are, stylistically, similar to the criticisms of President Joe Biden's speaking style (he has a stutter and suffered two brain aneurysms in 1988). They are even reminiscent of how, more than a century ago, President Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke so debilitating that his First Lady Edith Wilson had to help him run the country.
"Ableism exists in all corners of our society. People with disabilities are far too often judged because of their differences and underestimated for their abilities, which is why we see so few elected officials with disabilities."
Regardless of one's opinions on Fetterman's politics, the state of his health is another question entirely. That is the opinion of disability activists, many of whom spoke to Salon about the way that Fetterman has been depicted in the media. The consensus among disability civil rights leaders is that Fetterman's stroke, and his recovery, have lit up ableist assumptions that are normalized and under-discussed in our culture.
"This is a teachable moment," Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc of the United States, told Salon by email. "People with disabilities are far too often judged because of their differences and underestimated for their abilities, which is why we see so few elected officials with disabilities."
None of the disability rights leaders with whom Salon spoke denied that a stroke is impairing and often debilitating. Yet, as doctors and health experts have been quick to attest, a stroke does not automatically make one incapable of doing the same work as someone who did not have a stroke; it depends on the nature of the job and the specific details of the stroke in question. The American Stroke Association uses the acronym FAST to help people identify when they have had a stroke, or any condition in which the brain is damaged due to interruption in its blood supply: People should look for the Face drooping, Arm weakness and Speech issues before deciding that it's Time to call 911. Strokes can cause long-term issues like difficulty speaking, confusion, issues with concentration and memory, and difficulty controlling motion in parts of your body. Stroke experts say that patients are more likely to recover if they have a good support network, access to quality resources and sought medical intervention early, all of which apply in Fetterman's case.
Maria Town, President and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities, took Berns' point one step further. After stating unequivocally that she does not believe Fetterman's stroke renders him unfit for office, she questioned whether our culture's very use of terms like "fitness" are inherently discriminatory.
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"It's been said many times at this point that Fetterman's stroke did not impact his cognition," Town explained, referring among other things to reassurances from Fetterman's doctor that he does not require work restrictions. "But even if it had, the fact of the matter is that people with cognitive disabilities should be able to run and serve in elected office. Instead of questioning whether or not John Fetterman is fit to serve, we should be questioning what we mean by 'fitness for office.'"
Yet American culture has a curious attachment to the phrase "fit for office." Many liberals questioned whether Trump was fit for office after he may have had a mini-stroke in 2020, though it was unclear whether he really did. California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who reportedly struggled recently with her memory, faced comparable questions for her fitness to serve. But often, less prominent candidates are deemed "unfit" because they have life experiences further outside of the norm of an upper-middle class D.C. politico — such as Chelsea Manning, the whistleblower who briefly mounted a campaign for a senate seat in Maryland in 2018; or former New York state governor David Paterson. Paterson, who is legally blind, was portrayed as incompetent and bumbling in a Saturday Night Live sketch.
"Determinations that people were 'unfit for office' have kept many people from marginalized communities from running for office," Town noted.
"Unfortunately, a lot of people like to not disclose their disabilities because of the stigma. We have absolutely no idea if other candidates may already have a disability that they're just choosing not to disclose."
Eric Buehlmann, Deputy Executive Director for Public Policy at the National Disability Rights Network, told Salon that he sees ableism in the demands that Fetterman release his medical records. This demand treats Fetterman differently and worse as a stroke victim, Buehlmann noted, because other candidates are not asked to release their medical records.
"I don't see a reason to treat people with disabilities different than people without disabilities," Buehlmann explained. "Unfortunately, a lot of people like to not disclose their disabilities because of the stigma. We have absolutely no idea if other candidates may already have a disability that they're just choosing not to disclose. Why are we going to say to one segment of society, 'If you wanna participate, you have to disclose your disability?' without saying that to everybody?"
Buehlmann knows what he is talking about when it comes to stroke recovery. While he was in his third year of law school and still working for the Senate, he suffered a stroke.
"This is not a medical diagnosis, but this is based on my experience and my recovery, and also my knowledge of the Senate," Buehlmann told Salon. "As I've said before, and I've said to many people, I see nothing from my experiences in my recovery and my knowledge of the Senate that precludes [Fetterman] from being an effective senator. You do not need to be making split second decisions in the Senate and deciding if you're gonna push the nuclear button or not."
The underlying issue, Buehlmann said, is that our society has stigmas surrounding disabilities which it is unwilling to address.
"There are already enough problems and stigma and misconceptions around employing people with disabilities, and I think this just sort of fits into that mold," Buehlmann said regarding the criticisms of Fetterman after his stroke. "I think it's very similar to that. I think the misconceptions are that there are certain types of jobs that if you need accommodations, you're therefore not capable of dong them." He also explained that, unlike a broken leg or sprained ankle, stroke recovery "is an ongoing thing that over the next months, over the next year, he will continue to improve. As the brain heals itself and changes and you learn how to use your accommodations and learn to work with what you've got, then you continue to improve and you continue to get better."
Town expressed concern that, if Fetterman does release his medical records, it would set a negative precedent for disabled people everywhere.
"I see nothing from my experiences in my recovery and my knowledge of the Senate that precludes [Fetterman] from being an effective senator."
"I think the negative impacts of John Fetterman releasing his full medical records far outweigh any positives that might come from him doing so, and I worry about similar discriminatory standards that might be applied to other people with disabilities seeking accommodations in the workplace," Town explained. "When asking for a job accommodation, people with disabilities are only required to disclose that they have a disability and that their disability impacts their work in specific ways. Documentation of the disability from a medical or rehabilitation is not always required, especially if the disability and the accommodation need are apparent. Job seekers and employees with disabilities are not required to disclose their full medical histories."
She added, "My concern is that the ableism John Fetterman is experiencing coupled with the continued calls for him to disclose more personal medical information than he already has will actually discourage other people with disabilities from disclosing their disabilities and seeking accommodations. Further, employers may feel emboldened to ask people with disabilities intrusive questions about their medical histories and personal health, creating conditions for hostile workplaces and discrimination."
In Berns' estimation, Fetterman's disability could provide Americans with an object lesson in the fact that disabled individuals strengthen rather than weaken places where they work.
"The general public needs to understand that people with disabilities are capable of serving in any leadership role and that their perspectives make our country stronger," Berns told Salon. "Disability is part of the human experience and accommodations should be accepted and integrated – without question or call-out – into all levels of our government and society."