John Fetterman and the Politics of DisabilityRoundup
tags: medical history, disability, John Fetterman, Adaptive Technology, Chronic Illness
Anya Jabour is Regents Professor of History at the University of Montana, where she teaches courses in US women’s history and directs the public history program. The author of the 2019 biography Sophonisba Breckinridge: Championing Women’s Activism in Modern America, she is currently working on the first full-length study of prison reformer and sex researcher Katharine Bement Davis.
In Fall 2022, conservative pundits condemned Senator-elect John Fetterman (D-PA), who had survived a stroke the previous spring, using discriminatory rhetoric. They claimed that because he was communicating using closed-caption technology, he was unfit for office. In addition, they suggested that his disability would render him unfit to perform the duties of his office. Evidently, such critics assume that the multifarious workplace responsibilities of an elected official cannot be performed using closed captioning, even though most public servants’ duties occur behind the scenes and do not require public speaking.
Moreover, even those responsibilities that do require public speaking, such as political rallies to communicate with supporters and constituents, actually benefit from closed captioning. This adaptive technology makes the message accessible to more voters, including non-English speakers, people who could not afford to take off from work and travel to attend live events, and home-bound older constituents, as well as folks with sensory and/or physical disabilities. All of these individuals can use recorded, transcribed, and translated versions of speeches more easily than in-person, audio-only, and English-only versions. So what I came to think of as the Fetterman fiasco was about anti-immigrant, anti-poor, and anti-elderly discrimination, as well as anti-disability rhetoric.
I am not an expert on disability, past or present. However, if “the personal is historical,” as the Nursing Clio tagline puts it, surely I have something to offer as an historian currently suffering from a significant disability that mimics the symptoms of a politician under fire for using adaptive technology and techniques – the same adaptations I used to produce this article while suffering from memory loss, brain fog, dyslexia, and dysgraphia.
The Fetterman fiasco erupted during my research leave from my academic home, the University of Montana. The purpose of my leave is to work on a book about Progressive-era social reformer and sex researcher Katharine Bement Davis – who herself has a few ableist skeletons in her closet as a one-time advocate of eugenics.
In late September and early October, as Fetterman’s campaign gained momentum and his critics intensified their crusade against him, I found myself with some spare time on my hands during a week-long stay in a hospital in Poughkeepsie, New York, far away from my research notes and laptop computer, as I recovered from a serious case of pneumonia – specifically, an uncommon form of the infection more commonly known as Legionnaires’ Disease.
Unlike most victims of Legionnaires’ Disease, first identified in the 1970s, I was not part of a large-scale outbreak. Indeed, public health authorities remain baffled about how I contracted a disease usually transmitted via contaminated water in hotel and hospital HVAC systems, given that I was nowhere near the New York City nursing home where a series of infections coincided with my own illness. While I could have been exposed in Montana or en route to New York, my symptoms revealed themselves – dramatically – in downtown Poughkeepsie, at a celebratory retirement dinner for Vassar College Professor Emerita Miriam Cohen.