Members Only | October 19, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
John Fetterman and the last consequence-free stigma
How to slander 61 million Americans.
On May 13, 2022, John Fetterman, lt. governor of Pennsylvania and the Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania’s open US Senate seat, suffered a stroke. Since then Fetterman has been fighting to recover, fighting to win the Senate seat and fighting non-stop ableism.
The candidate’s stroke was due to a blood clot caused by atrial fibrillation – an irregular heart rhythm – with which Fetterman was first diagnosed in 2017. He was hospitalized for 10 days, during which time he had a pacemaker combined with a defibrillator implanted. He was then sent home to recuperate. His cardiologist, Dr. Ramesh Chandra, said Fetterman suffered no cognitive damage and should “be fine” if he took his medication, ate well and exercised.
At the time, Fetterman released a statement to the press corps in which he said, “The good news is I’m feeling much better, and the doctors tell me I didn’t suffer any cognitive damage.”
Fetterman’s opponent is world-renowned cardiothoracic surgeon and celebrity TV doctor, Mehmet Oz. Rather than wish him well and confirm what doctors said, Oz began a campaign of ableist and medically inaccurate innuendo about Fetterman. Oz’s campaign said that if “Fetterman had ever eaten a vegetable in his life, then maybe he wouldn’t have had a major stroke.”
On Labor Day, Oz held a presser in Philadelphia after Fetterman, who had been campaigning throughout the state, declined to debate at that time. Oz told reporters that, “John Fetterman is either healthy and he’s dodging the debate because he does not want to answer for his radical left positions or he’s too sick to participate in the debate.”
Since then, Fetterman agreed to a debate with captions and has given a series of interviews, including an in-depth interview with journalist Rebecca Traister for the October cover for New York.
On Oct. 12, Rebecca Traister tweeted, “Fetterman speaks about what it’s like to have a doctor (Oz) mock his recovery — a gross irony, yes. Also ironic is news media clamoring for transparency, then themselves offering distortion: implying challenges are cognitive when they’re not, failing to contextualize accommodations.”
Traister was responding to an on-air interview with NBC News reporter Dasha Burns that had turned into a national furor over ableism and accommodations for disability, which have been law since 1990’s passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Fetterman requested that interview questions be captioned because he has, like many stroke victims (and also the 40 million Americans who are hard of hearing), auditory processing issues. These are expected to fully resolve in the coming months.
The interview went well. Fetterman had a minor hiccup over a word – “empathetic” – and used it to explain his recovery. The interview was peak transparency. Yet in Burns’ commentary to anchor Lester Holt, she suggested that Fetterman was unable to follow “small talk” without captions and that when the captioning device was off, “it wasn’t clear he was understanding our conversation.”
The GOP, which has portrayed the progressive Fetterman as a radical leftist who’s soft on crime, pounced on the comments and conflated them with the entire interview. Townhall and the Daily Caller used Burns’ comments to bolster Oz. Some pundits and reporters across the political spectrum began questioning Fetterman’s fitness.
Reporter and podcaster Kara Swisher, who had a stroke herself in 2011, was prompted to respond, noting on Twitter that, “This is just nonsense. Maybe this reporter is just bad at small talk.”
Swisher, who has called the ableist attacks on Fetterman “appalling,” had herself done an interview with Fetterman for her podcast. She reposted it on Twitter and said that, “I was really quite impressed with how well he’s doing. Everyone can judge for themselves.”
The blowback via disability rights groups and progressives like Swisher and Traister was swift, prompting her to defend herself. “We were happy to accommodate closed captioning. Our reporting did not and should not comment on fitness for office. This is for voters to decide. What we do push for as reporters is transparency. It’s our job. Fetterman sat down and answered our questions. That’s his job.”
Burns has not tweeted since Oct. 12, the day after the interview.
While Fetterman has continued to campaign throughout the state to large crowds, his wife Gisele has called on NBC News to apologize for comments she called “shocking.” In an Oct. 17 interview with Eric Michael Garcia of The Independent, Gisele Fetterman said, “I would love to see an apology toward the disability community from
Dasha Burns and NBC News for the damage they have caused.”
Two Democratic United States senators, Maryland’s Chris Van Hollen, 61, and New Mexico’s Ben Ray Luján, 50, have had strokes this year. They recovered and returned to the Senate.
There are 61 million disabled Americans – the largest minority group in the US. Yet ableism – attacks by non-disabled people on people with disabilities – is still a socially acceptable form of bigotry. As I wrote last month, ableism is behind the constant and consistent efforts to restrict mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania and other states.
In February, the Public Interest Law Center (PILC) filed a brief with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court supporting the right to choose to mail-in voting. As was proven in 2020, access to mail-in voting increases participation, especially for those with disabilities. A higher percentage of Americans – 67 percent – voted in 2020 than in any election in US history – despite or because of the covid pandemic.
The case against Fetterman points dramatically to how consequence-free it is to dismiss disabled Americans – even those with power. As the PILC brief asserts that, “Voters with disabilities face an especially increased risk of disenfranchisement.” It’s unvarnished suppression against a large but vulnerable population.
What NBC News and others did is unethical and unconscionable. In conflating the use of language-assistive devices with intellectual and cognitive disability, Fetterman has been portrayed as incompetent.
Oz, a doctor, has used his credibility to imply that Fetterman is sicker than he claims. The weaponizing of disability is the ugliest of ploys, portraying the 6’9″ Fetterman into a weak and mentally challenged.
With the election weeks away, voters will, as Burns asserted, have to decide. But the ableist stink remains. It impacted not just Fetterman, his family and Pennsylvanians, but also 61 million Americans.
Victoria A. Brownworth is the author of Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life. She has written for the Times, DAME and more. Follow her @VABVOX.