Disability Wrongs

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on October 26, 2022 # Lifestyle

Allen RuckerThe opinions expressed in this blog are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.

The disability community in the US is much like the makeup of central Europe before German Unification in 1871 – 25 duchies and grand duchies and small kingdoms in search of a central agenda and central leader. There is no one voice to speak for the whole spectrum of disabilities, like Martin Luther King did for the Black community in the 1960’s or Ronald Reagan for conservatives in the 80s. The closest thing to a charismatic, front-page-grabbing spokesperson for all disabled people was Christopher Reeve, but only for a tragically short nine-year period.

I mention this because if there were a singular voice, he or she would right now be popping up on all media platforms to talk about the rank anti-disability rhetoric being used against Pennsylvania Senate candidate, John Fetterman. This has nothing to do with party politics, but everything to do with reigning attitudes about the disabled. There are at least two prominent politicians with disabilities now serving – Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas and Sen Tammy Duckworth of Illinois. Both are wheelchair users, and no opponent has ever brought up their disability.

Fetterman is different. He had a stroke, a brain disorder. He is still campaigning but he has trouble processing spoken words and trouble speaking, too. This has opened the proverbial floodgates of snipping and belittlement. Tucker Carlson said he was “brain-damaged” and “can barely speak.” NBC reporter Dasha Burns said upon interviewing Fetterman in person, “In a small talk before the interview, it wasn’t clear he understood our conversation.” Until he was given some assistive technology, a captioning device. Then he was fine.

In that one disparaging aside, Ms. Burns, to quote a fine guest essay in the New York Times, “shifted the conversation away from a necessary adaptation to implying NBC was doing Fetterman a favor by using captioning.”

A captioning device – something to help a disabled person, like a wheelchair, a ramp, an accessible toilet, or even a live ASL interpreter. This is not new. Tech companies have been into assistive devices for years. Apple now has live captioning on iPhones and iPads. Problem solved. But many don’t categorize Mr. Fetterman as disabled. They see him as dysfunctional, incapable of any normal cognitive or communicative process because of a stroke. They hear “stroke” and think “irreversible mental damage.”

As pointed out in a long New York Magazine profile of Fetterman, from all medical accounts, his cognitive abilities are fine and not affected by the stroke. Fetterman’s camp says he’d taken two neurocognitive tests, both with normal outcomes. Overall, his condition is much better than it was only three months ago. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, you can only assume that he will continue to improve.

A lot of the attacks on Fetterman’s mental condition are just political cant, an attempt to shame a 6’8, football-playing viral man as weak or enfeebled. But the reason much of this play is because of an underlying public bias about any “invisible” disability involving the brain or brain functions like talking or processing others’ talk. People with mental disabilities scare us like they are unapproachable, unpredictable, or even slightly deranged. Speech is a measure of normalcy. If you have difficulty talking or are slow or halting in your response, you must have problems with thinking and comprehending. You must be “brain-damaged.”

That’s not true. This is ablism, a term I don’t like but applies here. It’s defining a disabled person wholly by their disability and exaggerating the effects of that disability. Fetterman fits that to a tee. With the aid of an assistive device, he is as thoughtful, knowledgeable, and astute as he was before the stroke. There are a number of US congress people who have suffered strokes and soon returned to work. But that was before the current era of low-ball, ad hominem politics.

Before you read this, Fetterman and his opponent, Dr. Mehnet Oz, will have had their one public debate. And Fetterman will have a captioning device. Assuming neither candidate says something so stupid as to skew the whole race, the PA voter will have to decide if Fetterman’s disability plays any part in their decision. Some will undoubtedly feel it disqualifies him. Others may take the exact opposite tack: a guy who can recover from a stroke and run for Senate at the same time is one tough dude. He has true grit.

NOTES:

Perry, David “Why That John Fetterman Interview Caused a Furor,” New York Times, 10/13/22

Traister, Rebecca, “The Vulnerability of John Fetterman,” New York Magazine, 10/13/22

Allen Rucker was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and has an MA in Communication from Stanford University, an MA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and a BA in English from Washington University, St. Louis.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.