Op-Ed: The Treatment of Fetterman Shows Why There Are So Few Disabled Officials

John fetterman, a white bald man stands in front of a black stage stage with his arms spread wide wearing a black hoodie

Nate Smallwood / Stringer/ Getty

Rachel Charlton-Dailey (she/they) is an award-winning journalist specializing in health and disability. Their work is featured in publications such as Healthline, Huffpost, The Guardian, and Business Insider. Charlton-Dailey often uses their platform to spotlight issues that affect disabled people.

This week, lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania and U.S. Senate candidate, John Fetterman, was interviewed by Dasha Burns of NBC, and the segment drew attention for all the wrong reasons.

Fetterman had a stroke in May. The lasting effects include auditory processing disorder and aphasia, an impaired ability to understand or express speech. As a result, he uses closed captioning technology to conduct interviews. 

Burns and the network agreed to use captioning for the interview, but the effect, and how they spoke about it, felt patronizing.

"In small talk before the interview without captioning, it wasn’t clear he was understanding our conversation," Burns told NBC anchor Lester Holt.

This statement completely misses the point of using assistive technology for the interview. Of course Fetterman couldn’t understand Burns without the closed captioning technology—that’s why he needed it! 

All this does is insinuate that requiring an accommodation because of your health makes you unfit for public office. 

The NBC segment was Fetterman’s first in-person interview since having a stroke. While he should have been asked about his policies, he was instead forced to answer questions about his ability to lead based on assumptions about his health, despite a proven ability to give speeches.

As someone from the U.K., it's bizarre to me that everyone from the press to voters are demanding to see his medical records. Our data protection laws wouldn’t allow it.

Demanding to see a disabled person's medical records implies that disabled people are less capable of making their own decisions. It implies they can't make the same assessments about their mental and physical capabilities that everyone else can.

I have auditory processing disorder and aphasia as part of dyspraxia and brain fog from chronic conditions. I also had a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or “mini-stroke” when I was 20. All of this means that I often don’t fully understand what people are saying to me, especially if there are other noises in the room, like multiple conversations.

It can come off like I’m not listening or being rude when I ask people to repeat themselves. Sometimes, I suddenly process what someone has said to me as they are in the middle of repeating themselves, and I interrupt them—which can get frustrating. 

Interpreting sound can be particularly challenging while watching a video or attending a meeting, so when subtitles are available, I will use them. I always advocate for streaming events to provide subtitles or captions, as I know how important they are. 

I also know that calling someone with aphasia out when they mix up words doesn't help. Fetterman conflated "apathy" and "empathy." Though it was clear to viewers what he meant, Burns felt the need to point out the error.

Even though NBC worked to accommodate Fetterman, their fumbling of the process speaks to just how few disabled people are in positions of power and require these sort of accommodations. According to the National Council on Independent Living, there are just two U.S. senators and nine representatives with disabilities currently in federal office.

Lester Holt referred to the segment as "not a typical candidate interview." And it's our definition of what's "typical" that needs to change.

By Rachel Charlton-Dailey
Rachel Charlton-Dailey (she/they) is a health and disability journalist. They serve as editor-in-chief of The Unwritten, a platform for the stories of disabled people. Their work features in publications such as Healthline, Huffpost, Metro UK, The Guardian, and Business Insider.