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Why Fetterman's Senate campaign is a teaching moment greater than this election

John Fetterman's campaign could have a meaningful impact on disabled voters, but people like Mehmet Oz have resorted to ableist attacks.

When Mehmet Oz, the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, was trailing his opponent in polls and fundraising a few weeks ago, he resorted to a desperate tactic to get the upper hand in an ever-tightening race: leveraging ableism against a person with disabilities.

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

In an attempt to draw attention to speech and hearing impairments his Democratic rival, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, is experiencing as a result of a stroke he suffered in May, Oz released his medical records and challenged his opponent to do the same. “Voters should have full transparency when it comes to the health status of candidates running for office,” Oz said in a statement.

While the move hasn’t yet put Oz ahead of his opponent, the numbers are swiftly moving in Oz’s favor.

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

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But it’s not just a Republican problem. Local and national press have also piled onto Fetterman since Oz’s rebuke. Both The Washington Post and several other newspaper boards have drawn attention to his condition and demanded that he face his opponent or explain why he won’t participate in more debates. "Since returning to the campaign trail, Mr. Fetterman has been halting in his performances. He stammers, appears confused and keeps his remarks short. He has held no news conferences," The Washington Post board wrote.

Because of auditory processing difficulties and hearing issues when there’s loud background noises, Fetterman has opted out of media gaggles and has instead met with reporters remotely using video conferencing with closed-captioning and he hasn’t participated in the expected number of debates. Nonetheless, Fetterman has denied that campaigning differently has changed his capacity to serve his constituents. And so far, he’s refused to comply with Oz’s request to release his medical records.

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

Fetterman has agreed to debate Oz on Oct. 25 for a televised debate, two weeks before the election, a decision he says came “after being hit with massive criticism from state and national editorials and commentators for ducking.”

While it’s typical to release health records in presidential elections, it’s not for Senate races. But even if it was, this is a good opportunity to point out that the narrow concept of being “fit to serve” in the way it’s being used in the Fetterman-Oz race is premised on a deep-rooted ableist definition of health that labels disability as invalidating.

If having a stammer or a hearing impairment 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 the subject of ridicule and has been used to discredit him, but don’t we want children with speech challenges to grow up knowing they can aim for any job, even the presidency?

Disabled Americans have the right to be represented, and most importantly, to work, and that includes working for the U.S. government. An employer wouldn’t be allowed to refuse to hire a person because they have a hearing or speech difference, so why is it acceptable when it comes to holding office?

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 demeaning and discriminating them based on their disability is the accepted status quo. News outlets shouldn’t be endorsing the idea that someone who has a speech or hearing impairment is less fit to serve. They should be questioning that logic. Replace disability with any other identity and the prejudice is clear.

Disabled Americans have the right to be represented, and most importantly, to work, and that includes working for the U.S. government.

Rebecca Cokley, an American disability rights activist and public speaker who serves as the first U.S. Disability Rights Program Officer for the Ford Foundation, believes that the cultural obsession with Fetterman’s impairments and accommodations exemplifies how much we tolerate discrimination against people with disabilities. “Stigma against people with disabilities does real tangible harm,” she said. “If a disabled person has demonstrated they can fulfill the task of a job with or without accommodations, there should be no questions about their fitness to serve. The numerous people with disabilities that have served with honor in our communities, in Congress, in the White House, and our nation’s Supreme Court, show us that disability is not a disqualifier.”

People with disabilities aren’t just underrepresented as lawmakers, they’re also underrepresented in the electorate. Many want to vote, but face logistical hurdles like inaccessible polling places; 11% of disabled voters report having difficulty voting. Disabled people are also more likely to live in poverty, have less education and less employment opportunities, which all contribute to less political engagement. So in many ways, ableism becomes a self-reinforcing cycle.

When people with disabilities can’t run or aren't getting elected, ableism is left unchecked. The kind of reform that lawmakers with disabilities could institute doesn’t happen largely because there’s no pipeline to holding office. No wonder we’re so behind when it comes to disability policy; the very people who have those experiences are shut out of holding the kind of office that would allow them to actually change things.

But if people with disabilities voted at the same rate as nondisabled voters, there would be 1.75 million more voters. And one way to support disabled voters would be to have them represented in our government.

There are many reasons besides Oz's blatant ableism that make this tight race even tighter, with both campaigns ratcheting up the attack ads as Election Day approaches. But we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that disabled Americans shouldn’t be scorned from running for office, they should be encouraged to. 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 his disabilities.