The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fetterman debate reaction reveals stigma disabled candidates face

Disability advocates say the Pennsylvania Senate campaign shows the added scrutiny that candidates with disabilities receive

John Fetterman, who is having lingering auditory issues after a stroke, used a TV monitor with closed-captioning to process questions during a debate. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
9 min

The moment Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman began speaking in the debate Tuesday night against his opponent Mehmet Oz, the social media reaction quickly divided into two camps.

Some applauded Fetterman’s bravery in revealing the lingering auditory processing challenges he faces following a stroke last May. Others criticized his verbal missteps, calling it “painful to watch” and a sign that he probably can’t do the job if elected.

Whatever voters ultimately decide at the polls, Fetterman’s performance marks something of a milestone for the disability community, which remains underrepresented at every level of elected office. The debate not only put Fetterman’s cognitive challenges and need for accommodation on full public display, say disability advocates, but it revealed the ableism inherent in the electoral process and the added scrutiny that candidates with disabilities receive compared with their non-disabled counterparts.

“Disability and disability accommodations are a question mark for a lot of people — they raise questions, they raise suspicion,” said Andrew Pulrang, co-founder of CripTheVote, a campaign to encourage people with disabilities to get more involved with politics.

While Fetterman’s campaign has received outsize attention, he is one of several candidates at the local, state and national level who chose during this election cycle to be open about their cognitive or communication disabilities, including autism, ADHD, Tourette’s syndrome, stutters, dyslexia and learning disabilities.

How the handling of Fetterman’s stroke compares with Mark Kirk’s in 2016

An analysis of more than 36,000 politicians between 2013 to 2017 found that while the number of elected officials with disabilities has gone up, they are still underrepresented in politics — making up 12 percent of politicians on the local level and only about six percent of politicians at the state and federal level. By comparison, the federal estimates suggest that about 26 percent of U.S. adults have a disability.

“The silver lining of what’s happening with Fetterman is I think it’s hopefully opening up the floor to discussion about things that people with disabilities have been dealing with for a very long time,” said Jumaane Williams, who has ADHD and Tourette’s syndrome and recently lost the Democratic primary for governor of New York.

Questions about intelligence

Yuh-Line Niou, an openly autistic New York state assembly member, ran this year to represent New York’s 10th District in a bid to become the first openly autistic politician in Congress.

Niou lost her primary. She said has faced a certain degree of harassment from the public over her disability, including people who called her “mentally ill” or used a slur for people with intellectual disabilities. Niou said it was clear people don’t understand that people with autism are intelligent, empathic beings.

“I got all these questions like, ‘Are you going to be able to do your job? Like, can she even think?’ ” Niou said. “ ‘Can she service people if she doesn’t know what they’re feeling?’ ”

“I think that it’s very unfair for somebody to say that, because I probably am more empathetic than anyone else,” she added, explaining that as an autistic person, she just expresses her emotions differently.

Disability advocates and researchers say these types of doubts are often predicated on a narrow definition of “fitness” that has historically prevented candidates with disabilities from entering politics — particularly those with any type of cognitive or communication differences.

While the presence of openly disabled candidates is starting to challenge this type of stigma, they said the fact that Fetterman’s lead has shrunk in the weeks since he revealed his auditory processing issue is a sign of the pervasive ableism that disabled candidates run up against.

And not all disabilities are treated equally by voters, according to Douglas L. Kruse and Lisa A. Schur, co-directors of Rutgers University’s Program for Disability Research. In their research on politicians with disabilities, they found that someone who has a hearing disability or who has difficulty walking or climbing stairs is much more likely to be in office than someone with a vision, mental or cognitive disability.

“People assume if you have one type of disability, you’re more likely to have another,” Kruse said. “This especially applies to any cognitive disability, a difficulty with auditory processing or speech impairment. People assume something must be wrong with their mind.”

‘Ableism’ in the political process

Fetterman’s health has become a focal point for both campaigns, and during the debate, he was asked repeatedly by moderators about his ability to serve. The debate included closed captions as an accommodation for Fetterman, but the captions, which were provided through stenographers who transcribed everything onto a large monitor behind the moderators, lagged several seconds behind and may have resulted in some delays as Fetterman presumably took time to read the captions before answering.

The debate format also involved rapid-fire questions and 15- and 30-second response times that, at times, seemed difficult for Fetterman to manage. On Twitter, a number of people commented that watching the debate made them more aware of how the debate process is skewed in favor of people who don’t have disabilities.

Johnathan Perkins, an equity and higher education lawyer who is originally from Philadelphia and now is based in Los Angeles, said he was rethinking disability equity after the debate and tweeted that the fact response periods are timed “seems relatively ableist,” and unfair for someone reading captions.

“I never thought about it much until tonight when I saw how much of an obvious disadvantage Fetterman had,” he wrote.

Kristen Seversky, 35, a native of Edinboro, Penn., who now lives in New York, also tweeted that she is more aware of how rapid-fire debates like tonight’s can be “disadvantageous” to those who rely on captions.

“I’m left with a disappointed feeling because I trust folks will be judging based on whether an answer is given in 15 seconds while prompts are still being formed on the screen,” she wrote in a message.

“Extra time is an extremely common disability accommodation,” tweeted Sara Luterman, a journalist for the 19th who is autistic. “The debate was basically what happens when disability isn’t adequately accommodated. I do not think it was an accurate or fair reflection on Fetterman’s fitness for office.”

Niou agreed that the structure of political debates can make it more difficult for candidates with disabilities to win over voters. In her case, she said she has a harder time picking up on political jabs and is uncomfortable speaking over others. This often results in her having less speaking time and may make her seem “weaker” when she doesn’t respond to subtle attacks.

Niou has served since 2017 as one of only three openly autistic elected legislators in the United States — with the other two being Pennsylvania state Rep. Jessica Benham (D) and Texas state Rep. Briscoe Cain (R).

A vicious cycle

Criticism of someone’s disability can also scare away voters that would have otherwise voted for a disabled candidate, making it even harder for them to win, according to Gabriele Magni, an assistant political science professor at Loyola Marymount University.

Magni co-authored a study, which is still under peer review, that surveyed over 6,000 likely U.S. voters and found that voters strongly discriminate against candidates with disabilities and health challenges, but not always because they believe the candidate can’t do the job. In some cases, voters may say a candidate is “unelectable” due to the prejudices of others, he said.

“In a way, this becomes sort of a vicious cycle because there’s not many successful examples or role models to say ‘Hey, we can win,’ ” Magni said.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has dyslexia and said he knows firsthand what type of encouragement his disability disclosure gave to others with similar learning difficulties. In continuing to run and openly using captions, he said he believes Fetterman’s high-profile campaign will have a positive impact on the perceptions of others with cognitive disabilities.

“He’s created more space for more people.” Newsom said.

Similarly, Niou’s success encouraged Lydia X.Z. Brown (D) to run for a state assembly member office in Maryland as another openly autistic candidate.

In addition to being autistic, Brown has an auditory processing issue and has requested closed captioning as an accommodation in the past. Brown also speaks Spanish and Arabic and teaches college level courses, but said opponents still question their intelligence. Brown said they could relate to the scrutiny that Fetterman is now facing over his need for captions.

“To hear literally thousands of people make the very same assumption about a very capable person who has the exact same experience that I was dealing with and still do — that was infuriating to me,” Brown said.

Public speaking challenges

Michael Anderson (D), a candidate for Florida’s House, said he has been underestimated due to his disability, including by members of his own party. Anderson has cerebral palsy and developmental delays, which cause him to stutter and sometimes struggle to speak.

By running for office, Anderson said he hopes to challenge conventional expectations of what political candidates should look and sound like. But phone banking to drum up support from voters is challenging for him because of his anxiety around phone calls and the annoyed reactions he can receive when he takes longer to say something.

He said he has also been pressured by other politicians and by voters to shorten his speeches or stick to certain time limits, but doing so is not always possible.

“My mouth and my speech and anxiety is going to do what it’s going to do,” he explained. “Yes, it’s going to take me two minutes instead of 60 seconds to do a speech, but that’s who I am,” he said.

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