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Disabled Community Calls Out Ableism In Coverage Of John Fetterman Following Stroke

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Experts in the incapacity community say there’s been a dismaying element of ableism surrounding a recent NBC News interview with John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, who experienced a stroke in May.

The on-camera interview, which aired Tuesday, was Fetterman’s first since his stroke. While talking to reporter Dasha Burns, Fetterman required closed captioning attributable to his difficulties with auditory processing ― a typical experience amongst stroke survivors.

NBC News has been criticized for its handling of the segment, which experts say focused far an excessive amount of on Fetterman’s disability and his need for closed captioning, slightly than on the content of the interview itself.

The segment began with an introduction by anchor Lester Holt, who told viewers it was “not your typical candidate interview.” Burns then said that “in small talk before the interview, without captioning, it wasn’t clear [Fetterman] was understanding our conversation.”

“It just shows us we have now very strict, outdated and ableist norms around who we see as leaders in elected office ― what they give the impression of being like, what they speak like, what their needs are,” disability civic engagement expert Sarah Blahovec told HuffPost. “I see the intersection of the access barriers to political spaces, and the way in which that we as a society take a look at individuals who have access needs and query whether or not they needs to be elected officials.”

Really frustrated to see the ableism around John Fetterman needing closed captioning as an accommodation.

More disabled people needs to be running for office, but face a scarcity of accommodations, in addition to prejudice. #CripTheVote https://t.co/L5JOfjkpAC

— Sarah Blahovec (@Sblahov) October 12, 2022

Requesting reasonable accommodations corresponding to closed captions is legal under the Americans with Disabilities Act. But Burns treated Fetterman’s normal accommodations for an auditory processing issue as a “gotcha,” said Cara Reedy, director of the Disabled Journalists Association.

I just find it upsetting that a journalist didn’t take time to research auditory processing disorders before interviewing,” Reedy told HuffPost. “That looks as if she was unprepared based on her and doubtless other people within the newsroom’s biases. Who approved that framing? She didn’t make these decisions on her own.”

Blahovec said that when people use perceived medical conditions and disabilities to forged doubt on whether a candidate should serve in office, it detracts from what people needs to be specializing in: ideas and policies. For instance, Fetterman has expressed support for a national law that might effectively reinstate the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling that was overruled in June.

Fetterman’s health and skill to function senator have been a significant focus of the race following his stroke, which comes as no surprise to the incapacity community.

“Society has an extended history in co-opting the bodies of disabled people, and feeling prefer it is perfectly all right for individuals with disabilities to have our abilities [and] the personification of our conditions questioned in the general public space, in a way that’s pervasive, inappropriate and fundamentally unprofessional,” said Rebecca Cokley, U.S. disability rights program officer on the Ford Foundation.

That is what responsible reporting on disabled candidates needs to be: not assuming that needing accommodations routinely means unfitness, and a good assessment of the incapacity in query and the way it really works in interpersonal interactions. https://t.co/R1qPWmM0Oc

— Aparna Nair (@DisabilityStor1) October 12, 2022

Fetterman is running against Republican Mehmet Oz, a celeb physician whose campaign has mocked Fetterman’s recovery in a series of ableist attacks. Moreover, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) expressed doubts about Fetterman serving within the Senate, questioning whether he’s “capable of communicate effectively” and “engage with colleagues.”

Burns has said that her remarks about Fetterman shouldn’t be seen as commentary on his fitness for the Senate. But Republicans have amplified her remarks within the hopes of boosting Oz’s possibilities in a tightening race.

Fetterman is just not the primary public figure to be criticized through an ableist lens.

Cokley points out that other public officials have been criticized for supposedly struggling to drink water, or for taking long pauses during debates. The problem crosses party lines: Even critics of former President Donald Trump (who himself famously mocked a disabled reporter at a rally) have argued previously that he’s unfairly attacked on medical grounds. Similarly, President Joe Biden has been ridiculed for his struggles with stuttering.

“Disability appears to be an equal-opportunity goal for groups of people who wish to blanket-disqualify a person for public service,” Cokley said. “I feel that disability as a community continues to be very much related to weakness and inability.”

Disabled people lead. On daily basis. DESPITE your ableism,

With & without accommodations, because let’s be real, a few of you see access as weakness.

At the very least you are non-partisan ableists. Did it with Biden, with Trump, with Fetterman.

But you are still ableists. #AccessIsARight

— Rebecca Cokley (@RebeccaCokley) October 12, 2022

Ableism regarding cognitive ability is rampant in politics, Blahovec said. “There’s a lack of know-how around what individuals with cognitive disabilities are able to, and blanket assumptions that they shouldn’t serve in elected office,” she said. “In the event that they are qualified to serve in elected office [and] in the event that they can do the job, then they need to give you the chance to.”

“We shouldn’t be making a blanket judgment that anyone with a cognitive disability can’t serve in any elected office,” she added. “There’s a lot nuance to this and what this looks like and what those accommodations could be.”

With the continuing COVID-19 pandemic causing an increase in cognitive disabilities and brain fog, Blahovec wonders what the long run holds, by way of who’s considered fit for elected office. Cokley said it’s essential to take into consideration what qualities we’re searching for in our leaders.

“I feel that is for the person to think through, I feel it’s for the parties to think through,” Cokley said. “I feel it’s for a nation to collectively think through. Why can we proceed to see disability as manifestly unjust and folks with disabilities as undeserving across a large number of categories?”

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