What attacks on John Fetterman’s health reveal about disability and politics

In the months since John Fetterman suffered a stroke, the Democratic candidate for a Pennsylvania Senate seat has returned to the campaign trail and begun giving interviews — while his opponent’s attacks on his health have intensified.

As Mehmet Oz, the Republican candidate, continues to flop in the polls and in fundraising, he mocks Fetterman for initially refusing to debate and questions whether his opponent is using his stroke as an excuse to avoid a public confrontation. Now, Fetterman’s health is back in the news after the candidate — who currently serves as the state’s lieutenant governor — used closed captioning technology during a recent interview with NBC News.

Fetterman said that as part of his recovery, he needs the technology, which transcribes reporters’ questions and displays them on a screen to read, because of temporary auditory processing difficulties; after the stroke, Fetterman still doesn’t understand everything he’s told. With the captions, however, he was able to answer the reporter’s questions (with rare verbal slips). During the interview, Fetterman said the stroke has changed his life, but it will not affect his ability to serve as an elected official. Still, the interview raised a new wave of questions and digs by Republicans about whether his recovery makes him ineligible for a seat in Congress.

The lines of attack used against Fetterman, many of which are ableist (meaning they convey prejudice, overt or subtle, against people with disabilities) tap into longstanding stereotypes about people with disabilities and could affect voters’ perceptions of him. That’s because there continues to be a stigma against people with disabilities, according to Lisa Schur, co-director of the Rutgers Program on Disability Studies. As a result, she said, political “candidates with disabilities have to work extra hard to assure voters that, yes, I am competent and able to do the job.” This stigma can be particularly strong for applicants with mental or cognitive disabilities—or even for applicants where questions are raised about their cognitive function.

Of course, we don’t have enough evidence to say for sure whether disabled candidates have a lower chance of winning elections. We do however, know that people with disabilities are dramatically underrepresented in government. That’s especially true at the federal level, where just over 6 percent of elected officials report having a disability, compared with 12 percent at the local level, according to a study by Schur and her co-director, Douglas Crews.

Despite his health challenges over the last few months, Fetterman’s chances against Oz still look good. Fetterman leads the race is is declining, according to recent polls, but FiveThirtyEight’s forecast for the 2022 midterm elections still gives the Democrat a more than 7-in-10 chance of defeating his Republican opponent. And that’s probably why Oz stepped up the attacks on Fetterman’s health, Cruz suggested. “Oz is behind at the moment and wants to raise the competency issue,” he said.

In fact, with Fetterman still leading in most polls, it only helps Republicans reinforce ableist stereotypes about chronic illness and the use of accessibility aids to argue that Fetterman is unfit for office. The media’s coverage of Fetterman’s condition also supports them: the NBC interview focused mostly on his health, and the reporter who conducted the interview made a casual comment that Fetterman appeared to be having trouble understanding the conversations before, drawing criticism from other reporters , who had spoken to the candidate and said that he did not show any problems in understanding.

As a result, it was easy for people to focus on Fetterman’s health: his ability to speak and understand, rather than his political positions, were the focus of many stories and tweets posted in response to the interview.

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According to Richard Scotch, a professor of sociology and public policy at the University of Texas at Dallas who studies disability rights and social inequality, some of the stigma around physically impairments have decreased over time. “They are not viewed as negatively as they were 60 or even 30 years ago,” he said. That may in part be one reason why a wave of disabled public officials across the political spectrum — including Republicans, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas and Congressman Madison Cawthorne of North Carolina, and Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois — have held successful campaigns. “There aren’t many critics who would say their disability impedes their ability to hold public office,” Skoch said. Yet, he added, the same is not true of all disabilities: “Disabilities that affect a person’s ability to communicate effectively may be more stigmatizing than those that do not.”

Having a disability like Fetterman’s that he and his doctors believe will improve with time can fall into that category. That’s because having an “invisible” disability versus a “visible” one—a problem understanding speech as opposed to using a wheelchair—can be associated in voters’ minds with issues like mental capacity or cognitive decline, “which are scarier for humans to digest,” Schur said.

Fetterman is not the only politician of late who has had to ask questions about his mental capacity. Despite not having physical disabilities, older politicians such as President Biden or Senator Dianne Feinstein (the oldest serving US senator reported to be experiencing cognitive decline) have repeatedly been told that they should retire or not to seek additional mandates in the public service.

But disability discrimination isn’t always covered equally: several former presidents, for example, had obvious cognitive decline while in office without much questioning. What may make Fetterman’s case different, however, is that he is both publicly discussing his condition (unlike other politicians who have hidden theirs) and in an ongoing and competitive race. “Especially in America, there’s this notion that the goal is to be completely independent and self-sufficient: All these values ​​that supposedly go along with this kind of ‘ability,'” Schur told me. “Anytime you see someone depending on technology or adaptation, I think some people, especially those with more traditional values, might question whether that person is fit for a particular job.”

Oz’s attacks are based on those stereotypes: Last month, the Republican released his medical records and repeatedly challenged Fetterman to do the same, despite the fact that it’s a fading tradition — and usually used in presidential races, not Senate races. “If John Fetterman had ever eaten a vegetable in his life, then maybe he wouldn’t have had a major stroke and he wouldn’t have been in the position of constantly having to lie about it,” a senior communications adviser to Oz’s campaign said earlier this year.

On the other hand, Fetterman’s health journey may resonate with some people. Kruse and Schur estimate that 69 million people in the 2020 electorate either had a disability themselves or lived with someone with a disability. “So almost a third of people have direct experience with a disability,” Cruz said. “And when a politician says they have a disability, I think a lot of disabled people and those who are close to them will say, you know, that’s me. It’s part of my identity.”

In his interview this week, Fetterman said his background has given him an even greater ability to understand the challenges voters face. “In some ways, having a disability has some positive value for applicants because recovering from a serious illness demonstrates courage and resilience,” Skoch said.

At this point, we don’t know enough to say for sure whether Fetterman’s interview and continued recovery from his stroke will change how he’s perceived. It’s very possible that it won’t, Cruz predicted, because the Democrat used widely available closed-captioning technology, which he said most voters could see as “reasonable.” And while our metrics show a tightening race in Pennsylvania, that could be due to a number of factors, including both campaigns ramping up attack ads on multiple issues as Election Day approaches or Republican voters rallying behind Oz.

Overall, however, voters still have an overwhelmingly positive view of Fetterman, according to recent polls. A September Marist poll of registered voters in Pennsylvania, for example, found that a majority of adults in the state (45 percent) said they had a favorable opinion of Fetterman, compared with 39 percent who had an unfavorable opinion. Meanwhile, Oz was underwater: Only 30 percent of those polled said they had a favorable opinion of the former TV personality, versus 51 percent who viewed him unfavorably.

However, we’d expect this issue to come up again — especially since the race could determine which party controls the Senate. Fetterman and Oz are scheduled to debate on Oct. 25, so there’s time for Oz’s attacks to sink in — but also time for Fetterman to respond.

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