Fetterman and Assistive Technology

Exterior shot of the dome on the Pennsylvania State Capitol building

Editorial Note: This article was written in October in the heat of the political race, and shortly before the Senate debate in Pennsylvania between Mehmet Oz and John Fetterman. As a team, we didn’t want this to be seen as either for or against any specific person or party. Therefore, we decided to wait to publish it. However, now that John Fetterman is going to be a U.S. Senator representing Pennsylvania, both the issues and constituent awareness surrounding his disability and use of assistive technology have an importance that transcends the quips and barbs found in the campaign. It is our sincere hope that as people become acculturated to working side by side with people who use assistive technology, that we will see a similar evolution in the workplace as we have seen in entertainment…necessary for some but useful for all.

On October 13, the New York Times ran a guest opinion piece, “Why That John Fetterman Interview Caused a Furor.’ I was left wondering why the New York Times ran it as an opinion piece when it had facts, not opinions. John Fetterman using a perfectly normal piece of captioning assistive technology is a fact. Under well-established laws people needing reasonable accommodations are entitled to them is a fact. People historically and currently (including people on the Fetterman campaign) hold stigmas against employing people with disabilities and often try to hide them, is also fact.

As we previously wrote, October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), and as this incident with NBC News and the editorial choices of the NY Times emphasizes, we have A LOT of awareness building to do.  

My mother had a pretty severe stroke in 2016. She still has not recovered the full use of her right side, and her form of aphasia means she can’t always find the right word when she wants it. One is not the same after a stroke, and every stroke is different depending on what part of the brain is most affected. In my mother’s case, there were some trade-offs in her overall health and quality of life though. As we’ve talked about many times in our family, she’s actually healthier post-stroke with a better quality of life than she was pre-stroke. Surprising, right? Sure, she can’t type the 100+ words a minute she used to, but she’s healthier both physically and mentally than she was before the stroke.  

Haben Girma is a disabilities rights activist who is the first (but won’t be the only) deaf-blind woman to graduate from Harvard Law School. She recently published a memoir detailing her early life up to and through Harvard. My big takeaway from her story is that she’s not that special. Okay, that is a flippant hot take, but one I stand behind because it is precisely the takeaway that I think she’s going for in her book. Empower individuals with disabilities with assistive tech and create inclusive spaces for their use, and the limits that our ableist world has established will begin to shift. This is a ‘both’ / ‘and’ situation. Assistive technology will only improve, and digital accessibility will only become more ubiquitous, but we must also create inclusive environments for people with disabilities to tackle employment that was previously closed to them. 

So that brings us back to John Fetterman and the U.S. Senate. He had a stroke. His disability is not always a visible one. Millions of Americans have visible and invisible disabilities that are permanent, temporary, episodic, or situational. Should this disqualify him for the U.S. Senate? Absolutely not. Let’s judge Mr. Fetterman on his record, his policy ideas, and his performance, and not on whether he uses captioning technology to make him better at his profession. Perhaps if every politician had to read what others are asking or saying, it might improve communication across our politics. Maybe politicians would answer more honestly and directly. One can dream.  

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