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Will Fetterman’s Victory, Following Stroke, Help Expand Disability Inclusion in Politics?

Leading up to the 2022 midterm elections, candidates debated an array of hot-topic issues, such as abortion healthcare, climate change, immigration, inflation, marijuana decriminalization and student debt. But the issue of “ableism” seemed to take center stage in the Pennsylvania race for a seat in the U.S. Senate. After Democratic candidate John Fetterman suffered a stroke during the campaign season, some suggested that Fetterman’s opponent, Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz — and supporters of the celebrity physician — raised questions about whether Fetterman was fit to serve in the leadership position.

Understanding the Impact of Stroke

In May, which coincidentally happens to be Stroke Awareness Month, Fetterman suffered a stroke. Years earlier, Fetterman had been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, an irregular heart rhythm, which contributed to his recent health hurdle.

A stroke, also referred to as a brain attack, is a leading cause of disability in the U.S. And it ranks as the fifth leading cause of death. A stroke occurs when a blood vessel feeding the brain gets clogged or bursts. As a result, neither that part of the brain nor the part of the body it controls can then function properly. A stroke is a medical emergency that should be treated immediately.

After Fetterman received the urgent life-saving care he needed, he took to social media to update and reassure voters.

“I had a stroke that was caused by a clot from my heart being in an A-fib rhythm for too long,” he said, adding, “I’m feeling much better, and the doctors tell me I didn’t suffer any cognitive damage. I’m well on my way to a full recovery.”

clot in the brain, which occurs from a TIA or stroke
(American Heart Association)

Fetterman’s campaign shared that he underwent a “standard procedure to implant a pacemaker with a defibrillator,” which would help to maintain optimal heart function. Despite his declaration of recovery and restored health, which was validated by his physician in a published report, Dr. Oz and his campaign supporters raised concerns about Fetterman’s capability to hold office. This questioning catapulted the issue of ableism, or the discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities, into this political race and beyond.

Prior to his stroke in May, Fetterman, who had served as the 34th Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania since 2019, was deemed the favorite to win Pennsylvania’s Senate seat. That was until ableism threatened his campaign endeavors. The race garnered much attention, and the campaigns ended with former presidents rallying on behalf of their party’s nominee (with Presidents Biden and Obama campaigning for Fetterman, and President Trump campaigning for Oz).

Ableism’s Influence on Elections

Physical changes that follow a stroke are the result of injury to the brain and may include one or more effects, according to the American Stroke Association. During a televised political debate in October 2022, Fetterman acknowledged his impaired communication skills but shared that his recovery was smoothly moving in the right direction. Depending on the type and severity of a stroke, some people are able to fully recover while others experience varying levels of debilitating effects.

“I was completely ignorant about strokes and stroke recovery – until I had one at age 54,” Luke Visconti, a chairman of the National Organization on Disability, shared with the media. “Many stroke survivors are able to recover – in my case and apparently with Lt. Governor Fetterman, it takes brutally hard work. People have told me that I’m a nicer person since my stroke. I certainly know I’m more perceptive and empathetic. Don’t we all need more empathy?”

Fetterman seems to have a similar perspective. After criticism following his debate performance, he shared via Twitter, “I got knocked down, but I got back up. I’m going to fight for everyone in PA who ever got knocked down and had to get back up.”

Will Fetterman’s Victory, Following Stroke, Help Expand Disability Inclusion?

Apparently, Fetterman’s expression of determination in spite of challenges resonated with voters — with and without disabilities. On November 8, 2022, Fetterman defeated Oz, earning his position as a U.S. Senator.

John Fetterman, on stage in front of Vote Pennsylvania signage
(Fetterman’s fashion choices have also made headlines, as he often wears casual black sweatshirts. Source: Twitter)

Disability activists weren’t surprised that a candidate’s disability – temporary or permanent – could impact voter confidence. Sadly, beyond politics, ableism affects the workforce in general. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2021, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 10.1% – a percentage about twice as high as the rate for those without a disability.

“We all know Fetterman has this rough-and-tumble, strong, get-things-done persona,” stated Sophie Poost, the program director at the advocacy group Disability EmpowHer Network, in a CNN report. “He’s adjusting the way he communicates, how he works, how he campaigns, [so] there’s this ablest thinking that says that because these adjustments aren’t ‘normal,’ they’re ‘unnatural.’ Because they aren’t typical to non-disabled people, it’s seen as a weakness.”

Poost’s analysis is an interesting one. However, Fetterman isn’t the first politician with a disability to hold a political position. A number of politicians (currently and previously on the federal, state and local levels) are known to have had some kind of disability. For example, Tony Coelho, who has epilepsy, served in the U.S. House of Representatives; and he was the primary sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who just won re-election in this midterm election, is a wheelchair user with paralysis from the waist down; Senator Tammy Duckworth from Illinois and House member Brian Mast are double amputees, both of which are the result of combat injuries. President Joe Biden has been vocal about being a public official with a speech impediment. And former presidents also aligned with the disability community, including Franklin D. Roosevelt (paralyzed due to either polio or Guillain–Barré syndrome), Theodore Roosevelt (blind in one eye) and Woodrow Wilson (partially-paralyzed due to a stroke).

So, the question is… Will Fetterman’s victory, earned after a debilitating stroke, help to expand disability inclusion in the political sphere (and the workforce as a whole)? Only time will tell. But let’s hope so. People with disabilities are the largest minority group in America and, most likely, a disability identity will affect all of us (either personally or loved ones) at some point in our lives. In our American society, running for elected office is one of the most effective ways members of marginalized groups, including the disability community, can advocate for the needs of such communities.

Nancy DeVault
Nancy is the managing editor of AmeriDisability. She is an award-winning storyteller passionate about health and happiness.

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