Fetterman and Oz debate sheds light on ableism in politics, supporters say
In Pennsylvania’s race for a U.S. Senate seat, Democratic nominee John Fetterman has had to continually defend his ability to serve as he recovers from a life-threatening stroke.
“Again, my doctor thinks I’m fit to serve, and that’s what I believe where I stand,” he said during the debate on Tuesday night, citing a letter from his primary care physician. and refusing to commit to release medical records.
According to Fetterman’s doctors, the candidate sometimes has difficulty speaking and experiences auditory processing problems five months after his stroke. This has drawn criticism and speculation from some about his ability to take on a Senate role – however, neurologists have told ABC News that language issues do not indicate cognitive impairment in survivors of a Stroke.
Yet disability advocacy groups say ableism has been continuously thrown at Fetterman throughout his campaign since his stroke by Republican candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz’s team, although the doctor himself expressed empathy for Fetterman’s condition.
Ableism refers to discrimination against people with disabilities.
“It’s been, frankly, a distraction,” said Seth Ginsberg, president and co-founder of disability advocacy groups Global Healthy Living Foundation and CreakyJoints.
Ginsberg continued, “We hear daily from people with chronic conditions that they have experienced social prejudice and reduced opportunity based on people’s assumptions about what they can or cannot do with their conditions.”
Fetterman’s stroke has played a permanent role in the Team Oz political playbook.
When Fetterman declined to debate Oz in September, the Oz team released a seemingly mocking list of “concessions” they would make to bring Fetterman onto the debate stage, including: “We will pay for any medical personnel extra he might need on hold. ”
After Fetterman’s social media team poked fun at Oz for calling a ‘vegetable platter’ ‘rawness’, Oz’s senior communications advisor Rachel Tripp responded, telling Insider: ” If John Fetterman had ever eaten a vegetable in his life, then maybe he wouldn’t have.” I wouldn’t have had a major stroke and I wouldn’t have to constantly lie about it.
In an interview with NBC News, Oz said he has “tremendous compassion” for what Fetterman is going through.
“Not only do I like a challenge as a doctor, but I know his specific disease because it’s one of my specialties,” Oz said. He added that he would not talk to a patient like Tripp had talked to Fetterman.
However, Oz criticized Fetterman for not releasing his medical records, saying voters deserve to know more about a possible incoming politician’s health. When editorial boards at various news outlets urged both contestants to release their medical records, Oz agreed.
“In the interest of full transparency about my own health, I have reviewed my physician for the most recent assessment of my medical condition,” Oz said in a statement to Town & PA status. “I agree that voters should have full transparency regarding the health status of election candidates.”
This, and other comments, sparked a flurry of conversation and speculation about Fetterman’s abilities.
“I was completely clueless about strokes and recovery – until I had one at age 54,” said Luke Visconti, president of the National Organization on Disability. “Many stroke survivors are able to recover – in my case and apparently with Lt. Governor Fetterman, it takes hard work. People have told me I’m a nicer person since my stroke. I know I’m definitely more insightful and empathetic. Don’t we all need more empathy?”
Disabled activists say persistent and continuous blows to Fetterman’s condition despite his persistence on the campaign trail highlight how ableism turns a condition someone knows about into a weapon to be used against them to make assumptions on their abilities.
“We all know Fetterman has this tough, strong personality, which gets things done,” said Sophie Poost, program director for the advocacy group Disability EmpowHer Network. “He’s adjusting the way he communicates, how he works, how he campaigns, [so] there’s that cleverest thinking that says that because these adjustments aren’t “normal,” they’re “unnatural.” Because they’re not typical of non-disabled people, that’s considered a weakness.”
In 2021, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 10.1%, about twice the rate for people without disabilities.
“About a third of [Global Healthy Living Foundation] the staff suffers from a chronic illness that might otherwise prevent them from working. And, frankly, these people absolutely excel at their jobs,” Ginsberg said.
Disability advocates told ABC News it’s a time for many to recognize how ableism has become the norm.
“When politicians work harder and are then rewarded with good poll results, more donations or even election results. It’s just proof for people with disabilities…that these politicians don’t care about problems and barriers that community experiences disability, and at worst they think we don’t deserve to have access to what we need to live or even succeed in this country.”
Fetterman would not be the first politician to serve with a disability. President Joe Biden has been open about his experiences with a speech impediment that causes him to stutter. Texas Governor Greg Abbott is paralyzed from the waist down. Senator Tammy Duckworth is a double amputee.
Former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who contracted polio in 1921, was paralyzed from the waist down.
According to the National Council on Independent Living, dozens more politicians with some type of disability — neurological, physical, or otherwise — are currently running or serving at the federal, state, and local level.
“The systems of oppression of people seen as ‘the other,’ whether it be disability, race, poverty and gender, must be actively dismantled,” said Jane Dunhamn, director of the National Black Disability Coalition. “As we dismantle systems of oppression, we need more intellectual, cultural and lived humility.”