For many Americans with disabilities who watched the Senate debate in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s performance against Dr. Mehmet Oz was both a sign of how far they had come in political representation and a painful reminder of how far they have left to go.
On one hand, Mr. Fetterman, the Democratic nominee, was in a nationally watched debate months after a stroke left him with an auditory processing disorder, speaking openly about his disability — a remarkable moment for people who have felt pressure to hide their own, and who rarely see people like themselves in politics. On the other hand, much of the coverage of the debate focused on Mr. Fetterman’s verbal stumbles.
“To see how quick people were to say, ‘He shouldn’t have been on that stage tonight,’ ‘I don’t think he can do this’ — it’s yet another reminder of how the world views disabled people,” said Maria Town, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities. “It really does show me how much we use speech to perceive competence and confidence, and we really shouldn’t.”
The debate was powerful, and the punditry painful, for Ms. Town, who has cerebral palsy and recalled falling onstage in front of elected officials and her boss. She said she could imagine the anxiety Mr. Fetterman might have felt about his disability being on public display.
Historically, many politicians with disabilities tried to hide them, like former President Franklin Roosevelt, who sought to conceal his use of a wheelchair. Today, officials like Senator Tammy Duckworth and Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas use them with little fuss.
But communication-related disabilities remain deeply stigmatized. Disability rights advocates are acutely aware of the possibility that some voters will mistakenly equate difficulty speaking with difficulty thinking.
“I fear that our general population still has that thought, and so I don’t think a debate was probably the best platform for him,” said Josie Badger, who runs a youth development consulting firm and a legislative advocacy training program for disabled Pennsylvanians. But, she added, “What an amazing opportunity for him to share empowerment with others with disabilities.”
Mr. Fetterman is continuing to get speech therapy, which experts say is standard treatment for an auditory processing disorder. Experts also say such disorders often improve with time.
Dr. Badger, Ms. Town and Rebecca Cokley, program officer for the U.S. disability rights portfolio at the Ford Foundation, are all disabled themselves and all said Mr. Fetterman’s candor felt invigorating.
“I’m excited anytime I see a qualified candidate with a disability running, but even more so when I see one who doesn’t hide who they are,” Ms. Cokley said.
Sheryl Gay Stolberg contributed reporting.