Pennsylvania’s Oz-Fetterman Senate race exposes American ableism

When Mehmet Oz, the Republican candidate for the US Senate in Pennsylvania, trailed his opponent in the polls and fundraising a few weeks ago, he resorted to desperate tactics to gain the upper hand in a race of tighter and tighter: taking advantage of ableism against a disabled person.

The GOP is of course no stranger to discriminatory digs against people with disabilities, with the most overt forms of ableism coming from Donald Trump.

In an attempt to draw attention to the speech and hearing impairment his Democratic rival, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, is experiencing following a stroke he suffered in May, Oz released his medical records and challenged his opponent to do the same. “Voters should have full transparency regarding the health status of election candidates,” Oz said in a statement.

Although the move has yet to put Oz ahead of his opponent, the numbers are quickly moving in Oz’s favor.

Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, whose seat is on the line, also questioned Fetterman’s ability to be a lawmaker. “If John Fetterman was elected to the Senate and he is not able to communicate effectively, if he is not able to dialogue with the press, if he is not able to dialogue with his colleagues, he won’t be able to do the job,” he said. . The GOP is of course no stranger to discriminatory digs against people with disabilities, with the most overt forms of ableism coming from Donald Trump, who mocked a disabled reporter on live television.

But it’s not just a Republican problem. The local and national press has also piled on Fetterman since Oz’s reprimand. The Washington Post and several other newspaper boards drew attention to his condition and demanded that he confront his opponent or explain why he would not participate in more debates. “Since returning to the campaign trail, Mr. Fetterman has stalled in his performance. He stutters, appears confused, and keeps his remarks short. He has held no press conferences,” wrote the Washington Post board.

Due to auditory processing difficulties and problems hearing when there are loud background noises, Fetterman chose not to participate in media groups and instead met with reporters remotely using videoconferencing with assistant. titling and he did not participate in the expected number of debates. Nonetheless, Fetterman denied that campaigning differently has changed his ability to serve his constituents. And so far he has refused to comply with Oz’s request to release his medical records.

“In June, I released a letter from my doctor in which he clearly stated that I was fit to serve,” Fetterman said in his statement. “Dr. Oz has built his entire career lying to people about health. I trust my real doctors over the opinion of some quack who played one on TV.

Fetterman agreed to debate Oz on Oct. 25 for a televised debate, two weeks before the election, a move he said came “after he was hit with massive criticism from national editorials and commentators. and nationals for dodging”.

While it’s common to release health records in presidential elections, it’s not for Senate races. But even if that were the case, it’s a good opportunity to point out that the narrow concept of being “fit to serve” as used in the Fetterman-Oz race is grounded in a deeply rooted ableist definition of health that labels disability as disabling.

If having a stutter or hearing loss disqualifies someone from running or holding office, are we living up to the promise of democracy and government by the people? President Joe Biden’s stutter has been mocked and used to discredit him, but don’t we want kids with speech impediments to grow up knowing they can aim for any job, even the presidency?

Americans with disabilities have the right to representation and, most importantly, to work, and that includes working for the US government. An employer wouldn’t be allowed to refuse to hire someone because they have a hearing or speech difference, so why is that okay when it comes to a job?

People with disabilities are one of the most underrepresented populations in local and federal government. You don’t have to look far to understand why, when belittling and discriminating against them based on their disability is the accepted status quo. The media should not condone the idea that a person with a speech or hearing impairment is less able to serve. They should question this logic. Replace disability with any other identity and the bias is clear.

Americans with disabilities have the right to representation and, most importantly, to work, and that includes working for the US government.

Rebecca Cokley, an American disability rights activist and lecturer who is the first head of the American Disability Rights Program for the Ford Foundation, believes that Fetterman’s cultural obsession with disabilities and accommodations illustrates how much we tolerate discrimination against people with disabilities. “Disability stigma causes real and tangible harm,” she said. “If a person with a disability has demonstrated that he can perform the task of a job with or without accommodation, there should be no doubt as to his fitness to serve. The many people with disabilities who have served with honor in our communities, in Congress, in the White House and on our nation’s Supreme Court, show us that disability is not a disqualifier.

Persons with disabilities are not only underrepresented among legislators, they are also underrepresented in the electorate. Many want to vote, but face logistical obstacles like inaccessible polling stations; 11% of voters with disabilities report having difficulty voting. People with disabilities are also more likely to live in poverty, have less education and fewer job opportunities, which contributes to less political engagement. So, in many ways, ableism becomes a self-reinforcing cycle.

When people with disabilities cannot run or are not elected, ableism goes unchecked. The kind of reform that legislators with disabilities might institute doesn’t happen largely because there’s no pipeline to take office. No wonder we are so behind on disability policy; the very people who go through these experiences are excluded from occupying the kind of position that would allow them to make a real difference.

But if people with disabilities voted at the same rate as voters without disabilities, there would be 1.75 million more voters. And one way to support voters with disabilities would be to have them represented in our government.

Besides Oz’s blatant ableism, there are plenty of reasons that make this tight race even tighter, with both campaigns ramping up attack ads as Election Day approaches. But we must not lose sight of the fact that Americans with disabilities should not be scorned from running for office, they should be encouraged to do so. Strong candidates don’t need to rely on ableism to win. If Oz wants a fair fight, he can stick to attacking his opponents’ policies rather than their handicaps.

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