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John Fetterman's closed captioning reveals more about anti-disability bias than his ability to serve

York Dispatch editorial board

To anyone who knew John Fetterman before his stroke, the 6-foot-8 Democratic Senate hopeful's recent public appearances may be a bit jarring.

He's always made for an unlikely politician with his plainspoken manner, visible tattoos and affinity for Carhartt. Now, he's showing up with a new accessory: a closed captioning device that helps him process auditory information.

This led to questions about his ability to serve, calls for Fetterman to release his medical records and some deeply offensive remarks from his Republican opponent, Mehmet Oz.

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In August, an Oz staffer speculated that Fetterman wouldn't have had a stroke if he'd "ever eaten a vegetable in his life." (This comment ignored Fetterman's transformational weight loss — he shed 148 pounds in the lead-up to his election as lieutenant governor in 2018 — but that's beside the point.)

John Fetterman rallying in York on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022.

Oz's campaign followed that snide remark up with a recent mocking offer to “pay for any additional medical personnel he might need to have on standby” for their debate.

Given Oz's long history of peddling miracle cures and magic beans, it's hard to believe he's a doctor.

What kind of medical professional would openly criticize – or allow his campaign to do so – someone for needing an accommodation to do their job?

We'll let Fetterman state the obvious: "What does it say about a doctor who’s trying to capitalize on being sick, blaming someone for being sick, and rejoicing it in a sense?"

Nevermind that closed captioning is actually very common.

According to the closed captioning service Stagetext, roughly half of Americans use it on a regular basis, whether due to a stroke, hearing impairment or personal preference.

In Fetterman's case, the accommodation is a result of his stroke. According to a letter his doctor, Ramesh Chandra, released back in June, the candidate was previously diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, or an irregular heart rhythm. It's a condition known to cause blood clots, one of which ended up breaking loose and damaging the part of his brain that converts sound into words that can be understood. Fetterman can read and think just fine — hence the closed captioning — but processing and responding to audio input is still challenging at this point in his recovery.

"It's no secret," Fetterman said, during an hourlong, livestreamed meeting with our colleagues at PennLive. "Sometimes, I'm going to miss words and sometimes I'm going to mush two words together."

Despite his disclaimers, Fetterman's recent public appearances have gone relatively smoothly. In a recent NBC interview, he used the wrong words several times — saying "inflammation" instead of "inflation," for example, before correcting himself — but his overarching message has always been clear.

This is a man passionate in his support for the working class, for codifying Roe v. Wade's abortion protections and for legalizing marijuana.

Fetterman's doctor noted that, as long as he takes his medication and leads a healthy lifestyle, he'll be able to "serve in the U.S. Senate without a problem."

Let's be clear: For someone who suffered a nearly fatal stroke five months ago, Fetterman is a lot more coherent than his opponent.

Oz and others who make fun of Fetterman's use of closed captioning need to do some soul searching.

Do they also think someone who uses a wheelchair or walks with a cane should be barred from public office? How about someone taking medication for PTSD? Or perhaps someone with eyeglasses?

Fetterman's use of an accommodation to do his job is not the problem.

Our bias against people with disabilities is the issue.