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Ableism is on the ballot

The response to a US Senate candidate’s recovery from a stroke reveals how this nation derides and weaponizes disability.

Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, a Democratic candidate for US Senate, spoke during a campaign event in York, Pa., on Oct. 8.Matt Rourke/Associated Press

John Fetterman is recovering from a stroke. You may have heard something about that. In fact, it might be all anyone is hearing these days about the Democratic US Senate nominee from Pennsylvania.

In recent interviews, Fetterman, the state’s lieutenant governor, has spent most of his time answering questions about the stroke he suffered in May and its lingering effects. Some reporters have dwelled on what they’ve called Fetterman’s verbal stumbles and stutters. What’s also been revealed is the ableism underlying questions about whether someone with health challenges should run for public office.

“People believe disability is synonymous with negativity, and they don’t have a more expansive understanding of what disability is or an experience that’s more comprehensive,” Heather Watkins, a Boston disability rights activist, told me during a recent conversation. “They don’t understand that you could be in need of care, a caregiver, and a community builder all at once. They see disability through the prism of a limitations lens only, and it has a much wider lens than that.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 26 percent of adults nationwide live with a disability. That’s about 61 million people.


“It’s either pity or pedestal. Sadness or ‘super-crip.’ It’s not that full-bodied range of experience,” Watkins said. “People tend to focus on what they believe are these small facets that really are just so reductive. It’s not surprising, but it’s troubling.”

More than 795,000 people in the United States will suffer strokes this year. As a result of Fetterman’s, he has some hearing issues and uses a closed-captioning video to read reporters’ questions in real time. Occasionally he swings and misses before hitting the word he wants to say. But his speech is not garbled. His answers aren’t canned or scripted.


Fetterman seems to be doing well. Yet by his own admission he “almost died” when he landed in the hospital days before he won his state’s Democratic primary. In a surgical procedure, he received a pacemaker with a defibrillator. While his cardiologist, Dr. Ramesh Chandra, said that Fetterman “should be able to campaign and serve in the US Senate without a problem” as long as he maintains a healthy lifestyle and takes his medication, there’s room for legitimate concern about whether his long-term health will allow him to handle the demands of being a senator.

In a New York Magazine cover story, Fetterman said, “Running for the Senate, in the biggest race in the country, and having to recover at the same time is unprecedented.”

Part of that recovery has meant enduring a steady wave of lies and insults. Fox News’s Tucker Carlson falsely claimed that Fetterman is “brain damaged.” Nepotism’s nadir Meghan McCain tweeted, “How can someone be a Senator without being able to speak or understand small talk?” So much of this blather echoes Republican chatter about President Biden’s mental faculties because of a stutter he’s had since childhood.

Worst of all has been Mehmet Oz, Fetterman’s feckless Donald Trump-endorsed Republican opponent. He has demanded that Fetterman release his medical records and has cracked jokes about Fetterman’s health.

That’s a doctor mocking a man recovering from a stroke.


Of course, this is all borrowed from Trump, who once imitated a disabled New York Times reporter. Too bad Fetterman can’t get Trump to dictate a doctor’s note touting Fetterman’s “extraordinary” stamina — which is exactly what Trump did for himself in 2015 when asked for his own medical records.

There’s a reason why two of this nation’s most popular presidents concealed their health issues. The public never knew that Franklin D. Roosevelt had polio or that John F. Kennedy suffered from various chronic illnesses. Politicians want to project strength. Selina Meyer, the fictional vice president on HBO’s “Veep,” shunned wearing her glasses in public because she says they’re “like a wheelchair for the eye.”

Such attitudes are a disservice to voters, said Watkins, who was born with muscular dystrophy. She views the narrow focus on Fetterman’s health as a missed opportunity for rare conversations about having a disability and what it means to live in an ableist culture.

“If you’re going to talk about his disability, can we hear about how it’s contributing to his experience?” asked Watkins, who serves on the board of the Boston-based Disability Policy Consortium. “You don’t have to reduce it or erase it. You can include it in a way that informs his perspective and helps contribute to policy measures that he would put forth now and in the future.”

With a few weeks to go before one of November’s most closely watched races, Fetterman is leading Oz in several polls. But also watch this — ableist attacks on Fetterman’s health will accelerate. Like Barack Obama releasing his birth certificate, Fetterman can share every medical record and then some.


It’s too late to stanch the lies. His recovery has already been weaponized, and when Republicans go low, they always find a way to go lower.

Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @reneeygraham.