Campaigns & Elections

How Fetterman’s stroke changed his campaign – and the disability conversation

The Democratic U.S. Senate candidate’s recovery has put the focus on both his fitness for office and the need for better accessibility.

State Rep. Patty Kim and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman at a campaign event.

State Rep. Patty Kim and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman at a campaign event. Justin Sweitzer

Sitting on a stage at Harrisburg’s Zembo Shrine in the final days of his U.S. Senate campaign, John Fetterman opened up about his life-changing May 13 stroke.

The incumbent lieutenant governor, who coasted to victory to win the state’s Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate back in May, broached the topic via a little levity. “Has anyone heard that I had a stroke?” Fetterman joked, getting a few chuckles out of the crowd on Nov. 6. 

“The truth is, it has changed everything about my life,” Fetterman said, noting that he was using closed captioning during the event so he can “fully absorb everything that’s coming.”

Fetterman’s stroke, which his campaign revealed two days after it occurred, came just days before the Democratic primary race, but had little impact on how the race played out. He cruised to victory with close to 60% of the vote, and finished the contest 30 points ahead of his closest Democratic rival. But in the months that have followed, Fetterman’s stroke recovery has cast a shadow over his campaign as he continues to deal with lingering speech and auditory processing issues. 

Fetterman’s ongoing struggles were apparent when he took the debate stage for the first and only time last month to face off against Mehmet Oz, the celebrity doctor and GOP nominee for U.S. Senate. Fetterman spoke haltingly, and at times repeated phrases and mixed up words. For example, when asked about his past opposition to fracking, Fetterman said: “I do support fracking. And I don’t, I don’t – I support fracking, and I stand, and I do support fracking.”

Fetterman’s use of closed captioning at the Oct. 25 debate was agreed to by Oz’s campaign, though the reactions to the debate largely avoided the topic of closed captioning and instead focused on Fetterman’s performance.

For all the support Fetterman has had among Democrats and disability rights advocates – and despite there being no shortage of examples of candidates and sitting politicians who have run and served through significant illnesses and ailments – there are those who have expressed reservations about how his ongoing recovery could impact his ability to serve, as well as those who have questioned whether his campaign is truly committed to transparency. 

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial board endorsed Oz last month, stating that Fetterman should have released more comprehensive medical records, stressing at the same time that his health was “not the issue” that dissuaded them from endorsing Fetterman. “His lack of transparency, however, in refusing to release his medical records is troubling. It suggests an impulse to conceal and a mistrust of the people,” the board wrote. 

Matt Beynon, a Republican strategist for BrabenderCox who previously served as an aide to former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, told City & State that accommodations aren’t what concerns him, but rather Fetterman’s ability to articulate his stances on policy. 

“Words matter in politics. For instance, would John Fetterman be on the Foreign Relations Committee and be speaking to international leaders? I don’t know. Well, if you’re having trouble putting together articulate statements, that’s a problem on the international stage as a United States representative.”

“If you cannot articulate that voice every day for us 18 hours a day, seven days a week, for the next six years, that is a real problem,” Beynon said. “That’s not ableist, that’s not whatever other words the Democrats want to use, that’s just a fact.”

At the top of the Republican ticket, GOP gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano has attempted to turn Fetterman’s stroke into a reason to support his campaign for governor, saying in a recent interview that he could select Fetterman’s replacement if he were to become too ill to stay in office. “The governor will appoint the replacement for him, and under Mastriano, it will be a reliable conservative,” Mastriano said in a recent interview, speaking in hypothetical terms. 

At the Zembo Shrine, Fetterman made fewer verbal stumbles than during his debate with Oz as he spoke about how his stroke has informed his views on health care, underscoring the importance of having access to medical treatments. “Health care saved my life,” he told the crowd. 

Democrats and disability advocates say Fetterman’s continued campaigning and use of closed captioning has opened the door for more candidates with disabilities to run for office, while labeling attacks against his fitness for office as ableist. Others, however, have argued that questioning Fetterman’s fitness for office should be fair game and that the status of his recovery – namely, his speech issues – raises real questions about his ability to serve in the Senate.

For disability rights advocates, Fetterman’s ongoing recovery presents an opportunity to continue breaking down barriers for candidates with disabilities and normalize accommodations not just on the campaign trail, but in all aspects of everyday life. 

“Assistive technology is a part of daily life for hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians and millions of Americans,” said state Rep. Dan Miller, an Allegheny County Democrat who hosts an annual disability and mental health summit. “Assistive technology is nothing new. It obviously has broadened in application as technology has advanced. The wheelchair is an assistive technology. A lot of kids who have speech delays (use) a lot of communication devices. This is nothing new.”

“The lieutenant governor would not be the first or only senator to have a disability; there have been many others and there will continue to be many more. But I think, in this moment, the lieutenant governor’s candidacy has elevated the issue of ableism in our day-to-day society,” said state Rep. Jessica Benham, a Democrat from Allegheny County who has spoken openly about her own disabilities. 

Benham has Ehler-Danlos syndrome, a connective tissue disorder and physical disability, as well as autism. In an interview with City & State, she said there needs to be a cultural shift around how disabilities are viewed, particularly when it comes to accommodations. 

Rather than viewing accommodations solely as a way to help people with disabilities, Benham said, accommodations should be viewed as a way to make society more accessible at large – for those with disabilities and those without. 

“People without disabilities – the few that ex​​ist in this world – expect to be accommodated in day-to-day life,” Benham said. “They expect that when they walk into a conference room that there will be chairs around the conference table for them. That is an accommodation.”

Some disability advocates say that political campaigns – including Fetterman’s – could do more to improve accessibility. The Miami Lighthouse for the Blind, an organization that provides rehabilitation services to vision-impaired people, analyzed the accessibility of 16 campaign websites for candidates running for governor and Senate across the country, including in Pennsylvania. The analysis found that none of the 16 campaign websites were fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

Fetterman’s campaign website, as well as the websites belonging to the gubernatorial candidates Josh Shapiro and Doug Mastriano, received an overall grade of 3 out of 4, meaning their websites are “mostly accessible.” Oz’s website scored a 2.33 grade, with a grade of 2 meaning the website is “somewhat accessible.”

Virginia Jacko, the president and CEO of Miami Lighthouse for the Blind, said each of the Pennsylvania candidates surveyed – there were six total – lacked an option for readers to change the color contrast or font size of the websites. Not only does this present challenges to voters that have visual impairments, but it could rob candidates of a chance to connect with voters who have disabilities, Jacko said. “My advice to all of those candidates is: Don’t leave out the 14 million (people) in the United States” with vision impairments, Jacko said. “A lot of seniors are going to be left out, and they’re a very important voting bloc.”

Lori, a Harrisburg voter who only gave her first name when she spoke with City & State following Fetterman’s Harrisburg event, said she was unbothered by talk about his health. “I know people that have had a stroke. Of course, in the beginning, it was rough. But now, maybe a year later or however long, you couldn’t even tell that they had a stroke,” she said. “I have no concerns about that whatsoever.”

As for how to change the collective mindset surrounding accommodations and accessibility, Miller said electing more candidates with disabilities is a good place to start. 

“There is great benefit, I think, in extending the parameters of what’s possible in this country and what people can look, see and recognize to be exceptional,” he said. “We must create the space that lets them know that there is no barrier for them at all for their participation in every aspect of what it is to be a Pennsylvanian, and every aspect of what it is to be an American.”