This struck a real chord with me. I’ve worn glasses since the age of 7 and now I need hearing aids (and like open captions as a result). Does that mean I was supposed to disappear from life?
John Fetterman Is a Disabled American Who Needs Technology to Do His Job. So What?
Oct. 13, 2022
By David M. Perry
Mr. Perry, a disabled parent of a disabled child, has been writing about disability, politics and the media since 2008.
This week, John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee for the Senate from Pennsylvania, appeared in what NBC News billed as his first on-camera, one-on-one interview since he had a stroke in May. The interview went well and was conducted with Mr. Fetterman and the reporter, Dasha Burns, sitting in the same room, as Mr. Fetterman used a captioning system on a computer screen to assist him with his auditory processing, something he has needed help with since the stroke.
Ms. Burns introduced the interview to the news anchor Lester Holt by saying, “In small talk before the interview without captioning, it wasn’t clear he was understanding our conversation.” With that one statement, Ms. Burns shifted the conversation away from a necessary adaptation to implying that NBC was doing Mr. Fetterman a favor by using captioning and that it was a problem for the candidate that he needed technology to reliably converse.
Her comment suggests that certain kinds of accommodation are illegitimate. Would Ms. Burns have made a similar remark if a wheelchair user couldn’t get around without a wheelchair? Are you wearing contacts or glasses to read this essay? It is our accommodations, often but not exclusively technological in nature, that make it possible for many of us to do our jobs. This is no less true for politicians than it is for the rest of us.
The widespread furor over captioning prompted by the NBC News interview, not to mention the cynical references to Mr. Fetterman’s stroke by the campaign of his Republican opponent, Mehmet Oz, show we have a long way to go before disability is understood and accepted in our society. There’s a long history of disabled Americans serving in high political office, but also an equally long history of both actual stigma and politicians hiding their disabilities over fear of stigma.
Franklin Roosevelt tried to keep the press from photographing him being transferred into and out of his wheelchair. In 1964, the cover of Fact Magazine read, “1,189 Psychiatrists Say Goldwater Is Psychologically Unfit to Be President!” with one calling him a “dangerous lunatic.” In 1972, Thomas Eagleton was kicked off the Democratic ticket as vice president when it was revealed that he had been hospitalized for depression. In 1975, the columnist Garry Wills argued that George Wallace was unfit for office not because of his history of racism, but because he had a physical disability as a result of being shot.
Today, politicians as diverse as Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Representative Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina use wheelchairs, and even their most virulent political opponents generally don’t bring up their disabilities. But when it comes to invisible disabilities, and in particular ones that involve communication or mental function, stigma is trickier to detect and dispel.
There’s a better way to talk about disability and elected office. Congress is a workplace in which our leaders (and their staffs) may or may not need reasonable accommodations. All private U.S. businesses with more than 15 employees and government employers at all levels are required to grant reasonable accommodations. Not all potential accommodations are considered reasonable. The Americans With Disabilities Act exempts employers from accommodations that would cause an “undue hardship” given the resources of the employer or that would directly threaten the safety of the employee or others. But most accommodations that disabled workers need are considered reasonable, especially with the rise of inexpensive assistive technology that embeds accessibility in everyday life.
Your cellphone and its accessories can be great sources of assistive technology, including magnifying devices, wireless headphones that can work as hearing aids, apps that control actual medical hearing aids and cameras that correct for color blindness. And most of us are now carrying with us the whole internet, on which you can look up something that you might have forgotten.
Almost everyone also carries a screen now, and while automated captioning is still not as accurate as professional stenography of the kind used by Mr. Fetterman, artificial intelligence is improving speech recognition rapidly. Learning to work over Zoom and Slack, a necessity during Covid, likewise has made work significantly more accessible for disabled Americans with vastly different needs. Assistive technology is part of the modern workplace, and we all use it in ways most people don’t even notice. I’m a dyslexic writer. Spell-check is my assistive tech.
Some jobs require specific abilities that may not be replicable — yet — through technology or other adaptation. Spell-check will not help me be a fighter pilot since, as part of my dyslexia, I often can’t perceive up from down. A roofer needs to be able to climb a ladder. A condition like Alzheimer’s may have rendered Ronald Reagan unable to perform his duties as president long before his second term expired.
Our elected leaders tend to be old, and as we age, bodies and minds necessarily change. But in 2016, I lost liberal friends over criticizing their constant attempts to characterize Donald Trump as mentally unfit. Today, Republicans routinely imply that President Biden has dementia and mock his stutter. Shifting the conversation from questioning the legitimacy of any accommodation to a discussion about what is and isn’t reasonable, while admittedly fraught, will allow us to confront the difficult truth about aging and generational change in our public and private lives.
This has all become ever more relevant as we have lived through a mass disabling event. Covid, and specifically long Covid, is introducing both short-term and long-term needs in an ever expanding population of affected individuals. We need to make it easier rather than harder to talk about our needs in the workplace, and that change could start in a high-profile context — like a bitterly contested Senate race.
Because it’s not always easy to ask for an accommodation. The fear of backlash from employers, colleagues or, in this unusual case, the voters of Pennsylvania is real. It’s hard to admit you need help, even to yourself. I’ve been a disability advocate for 15 years, and I’ve had active symptoms of mental illness since I was 9. Last March, at age 48, I finally convinced myself it was OK to ask for a reasonable accommodation at work. Now I can do my job better with more flexibility around when I physically come into my office. And I can read this essay because I put on my glasses. Just as John Fetterman can be a senator if he has access to captioning.
In terms of the tech, it’s an amazing moment. But the technology can’t change anything if our biases as people, as a society, keep us from having the right conversations.
David M. Perry, a journalist and historian, is a co-author of “The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe.” He is also the undergraduate adviser in the history department at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.