John Fetterman's accommodation request revealed the bias we still have against disabled people

Correction & clarification: A prior version of this column misspelled the name of MSNBC’s Alex Wagner.

The discussion about what it means – and what it doesn’t mean – to be disabled has gained steam this week after Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman, five months after a stroke, used an app version of closed captions to help him answer a journalist's questions.

But this column isn’t just about Fetterman, and it’s certainly not limited to politics. The bigger conversation, the one we need to be having, is about why we make accommodations for people with disabilities, both visible and invisible.

As he continues to recover, Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. Fetterman used Google Meets to read the spoken questions of NBC News reporter Dasha Burns because he cannot always process what is being said to him. This auditory disconnect is not an uncommon response to a stroke in the early months and does not mean he can't do the job.

He read the questions, and he answered them. Occasionally, he stumbled on a word.

Unfortunately, Burns introduced the interview segment by saying this about Fetterman to NBC News anchor Lester Holt: “In small talk before the interview without captioning it wasn’t clear he was understanding our conversation.” The campaign had requested closed captioning for a reason: For now, Fetterman uses it so he can understand people talking to him. He has made no secret of this. In pointing out, without confirmation, that he couldn't hear her, Burns centered herself as the standard when the accommodation was meant to make them equals.

John Fetterman's use of technology is not an uncommon response to a stroke in the early months and does not mean he can't do the job.
John Fetterman's use of technology is not an uncommon response to a stroke in the early months and does not mean he can't do the job.

The initial broadcast of the interview began with this question from Burns: “Can voters trust that you will be able to do this job on Day One?” I’ve known enough newly elected senators – including my husband, Sen. Sherrod Brown – to understand the folly of this question.

Nobody is immediately ready for that job, or for any other job. Surgeons, teachers, journalists – every endeavor is incremental and dependent on colleagues and staff.

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The disappointing media coverage

Reaction to Burns' interview with Fetterman was swift, with some journalists and pundits touting the segment as problematic, if not catastrophic, for the candidate.

Just as rapidly, other journalists took issue with this framing of Fetterman, including Rebecca Traister, who wrote a recent, deeply reported profile of Fetterman for New York magazine. In her story, she criticized how the “political press” was parroting unfounded attacks on Fetterman’s health by the campaign of his Republican opponent, Mehmet Oz.

“Watching tv/news online pundits leer over clips of an interview in which he’s completely engaged and communicative is stomach-turning,” Traister tweeted, “and a super depressing example of what I was trying to describe.”

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Daily Mail columnist Meghan McCain offered one of the more egregious takes on Fetterman’s interview, in a tweet since deleted but destined to live on in screen captures: “This is insane. How can someone be a Senator without being able to speak or understand small talk?”

This is the same Meghan McCain who, in the wake of her father’s diagnosis of terminal brain cancer, explained in an HBO documentary why it was important for Sen. John McCain to keep returning to his work in the Senate.

“He’s better in Arizona I think, health-wise, but we sort of collectively made the decision: If he doesn’t work then he would probably get sick faster because work feeds him and it’s so much a part of who he is. So, I’m very supportive of him being in D.C.”

Of course, she wanted that for her father. McCain understood what every family member of a senator knows. A political campaign is different from daily life in the Senate, and no senator navigates that job alone. Some of the most intelligent and talented people I’ve met work for senators, including Sherrod. The most experienced of these people could easily make two and even three times their salaries in the corporate world, but they choose lives of public service.

Not the first disabled person in Congress

After the backlash, NBC News released Burns’ full interview with Fetterman. Burns devoted the first nine minutes to Fetterman’s stroke, including a belabored exchange about his use of the technology. She echoed the demand from a growing list of journalists who have pushed Fetterman to release his medical records. After seeing the ensuing hyperventilation over his use of closed captioning, I don’t blame him for not trusting us with that information.

As his wife, Gisele Barreto Fetterman, tweeted, “Yeah, accommodations are kind of a big civil rights thing.”

Yeah, and we should act like it.

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We don’t know the timeline for Fetterman’s recovery. Like all stroke survivors, he is forced to work hard and wait. If he is elected, he will be able to do what all senators do, which is hire talented people to help him do his job. He would not be the first disabled person to serve in Congress.

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman is a   Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate.
Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman is a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate.

Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk had a stroke in 2012 but remained in the Senate until he was defeated by Tammy Duckworth, who lost both her legs in the war in Iraq. An accidental shooting paralyzed Rhode Islander Jim Langevin when he was 16. In 2001, he became the first quadriplegic to serve in Congress and is retiring this year. More recently, Madison Cawthorn became the first person born in the 1990s to be elected to Congress, in 2020. Cawthorn lost his reelection bid in the Republican primary this year, but it wasn’t because he uses a wheelchair.

This is not a complete list.

'10 times more empathetic'

Too many of us have a two-tiered response to someone with a physical disability: We assume our superiority as if any accommodation renders a person diminished in some way.

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We are also forced to consider the randomness of illness and infirmity, and that can scare us. We fear our future and prefer to look away, steeped in the myth of our own invincibility. Some are born lucky, but time catches up with everyone.

As Fetterman told MSNBC’s Alex Wagner, “Before the stroke, I thought I was a very empathetic person and I really understood what it was like for people dealing with these kinds of challenges. But after it happened, it made me 10 times more empathetic.”

In his willingness to be public about his recovery, Fetterman proves he can do the job. With every speech and interview, he forces us to examine our own beliefs and biases about people with disabilities.

This an important lesson for those whose only current affliction is the hubris of good health.

Changed by talks with a friend

As I’ve monitored the Fetterman coverage, I keep thinking of my late friend and mentor Annie Glenn. She was known by most, perhaps, as the wife of astronaut and Sen. John Glenn, but she was revered as a hero to those who struggle with stuttering.

From an early age and through her 40s, Annie’s stutter was so pronounced that her young daughter, Lyn, often spoke for her in public. As she and Lyn told me numerous times over the years, Annie was regularly mistaken for slow-witted, a harmful and unfounded assumption about such a bright and thoughtful woman. These conversations changed me, as they forced me to consider how my ability to speak gave me an unearned advantage.

Connie Schultz is an Opinion columnist for USA TODAY.
Connie Schultz is an Opinion columnist for USA TODAY.

At 53, Annie enrolled in a new program for stutterers that changed her life – and gave birth to her activism. Sometimes, late in the evening, she would still stutter. As she told me during one of our dinners, “When I am tired, the words come more slowly, but my thoughts never slow down.”

USA TODAY columnist Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize winner whose novel, “The Daughters of Erietown,” is a New York Times bestseller. You can reach her at CSchultz@usatoday.com or on Twitter: @ConnieSchultz

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fetterman's request for accommodations reveals our disability bias