By Co-Editor Jess Gallagher

Content note: ableist language and disablism

“Dear leftists, I see that many of you were offended by my Fetterman comments, calling me an “ableist.” After thinking about it, I’d like to apologize … for absolutely nothing. I expect potential senators to be able to form complete thoughts and/or sentences. You idiots.” –Donald Trump Jr. 

And so, the age of ableism and apologia is among us, once again, in the political sphere. But where can we even begin to address this deeply ingrained rhetorical pattern amongst politicians? Let’s start with the most recent midterm election, and analyze what the victory of Pennsylvania State Senator, John Fetterman, shows us about the future of ableism in politics.

In the Pennsylvania race for the state’s U.S. Senate seat, Democratic candidate John Fetterman has had to continuously defend his “fitness” to serve in office after experiencing a stroke in May. Republican candidate for Senate in Pennsylvania, Mehmet Oz, and his campaign continued to add to this ongoing rhetoric by attacking Fetterman’s health. Rachel Tripp, the communications advisor for the Oz campaign, was even quoted saying, “[if Fetterman] had ever eaten a vegetable in his life, then maybe he wouldn’t have had a major stroke and wouldn’t be in the position of having to lie about it constantly.”

As a response to comments made by Tripp, the Oz campaign doubled down and called it “good health advice.” Recently deleted Twitter attacks—such as those made by Donald Trump Jr.—only add to the consistent, ongoing ableist rhetoric we so often see in U.S. politics. For example, we saw the same language used in former President Donald Trump’s campaign against Hillary Clinton, as he fixated on her health to delegitimize her political efforts,even going as far as to promote conspiracy theories that suggest she has Parkinson’s and epilepsy.

Similar to Trump’s campaign in the 2016 election, the attacks against Fetterman only continued as the Oz campaign requested to debate the lieutenant governor who still needed time to recover.

During the single debate held in October, Fetterman addressed comments made by Oz, saying, “Let’s also talk about the elephant in the room. I had a stroke. He’s [Oz] never let me forget that. And I might miss some words during this debate, mush two words together, but it knocked me down but I’m going to keep coming back up. And this campaign is all about, to me, is about fighting for everyone in Pennsylvania that got knocked down, that needs to get back up, and fighting for all forgotten communities all across Pennsylvania that also got knocked down that needs to keep to get back up.”

Fetterman—still questioned for his ability to serve after mispronouncing and combining words during his debate—was asked again on the debate stage why he would not be releasing his medical records to the public. In response he stated the following:, “Again, my doctor believes that I’m fit to be serving, and that’s what I believe where I’m standing.”

After criticism from Oz for not releasing his private medical records, the question that many Disability rights activists are asking is, “When will this stop?”

Ability and the “fitness” to serve have long since been launching points for discrediting candidates across United States political history and, subsequently, have become the norm. Peter Berns, the CEO of The Arc of the United States, recently responded to this persistent form of ableism saying, “Ableism exists in all corners of our society. People with disabilities are far too often judged because of their differences and underestimated for their abilities, which is why we see so few elected officials with disabilities.”

But it’s not only in the language of politics that we see a strong aversion to disability—it’s also within voting laws themselves. Voter suppression laws, passed in the state of Texas by Republicans, have historically harmed both people of color and disabled people. During the Texas primary election this year, voters with disabilities reached out to Disability Rights Texas because many had not received their mail-in ballots in time or the election of their ballots was rejected because of a new personal identification requirement.

The new law requires that people who assist voters with their ballot must disclose their relationship to the voter. However, the law specifically prohibits any person who accepts compensation for assisting to complete the ballot. This includes care workers, who are an essential resource that many people with disabilities rely on to perform daily tasks. Due to this new rule being enforced, ballot reject rates spiked from 2 percent to about 13 percent in Texas.

Discourses endorsing disability exclusion from politics and voting are some of the major reasons why we often see a lack of disability representation. ‘Fit for office’ is a term we often hear thrown around by people across the political spectrum, but what does this really mean?

Disability Studies scholars such as Jay Dolmage witness similar language used in higher education called “ableist apologia,” which we can also see ingrained within our political culture. In his introduction to the book, “Academic Ableism,” Dolmage mentions that ableist apologia “describes a category of statements and sentiments that distance the speaker from responsibility for the selective stratifying forces…that depend upon ableism and disablism to make sure privilege is portioned out only along traditional lines” (35). The main function of this type of rhetoric is, then, to ensure that those who move, think, act, and function outside a narrow set of norms will not thrive—including speakers who might proudly claim their disabled identity, have an embodied difference, or simply exist outside the straight, cisgender, white, patriarchal norm.

Elaborating further on Dolmage’s scholarship can illuminate how the lack of support and inclusion of members from historically marginalized communities within politics leads to the continual exclusion of progressive policies that could uplift and support these communities.

Eric Buehlmann, the Deputy Executive Director for Public Policy at the National Disability Rights Network further supported this point in a Salon article saying, “Unfortunately, a lot of people like to not disclose their disabilities because of stigma.”

But why is this important? With disclosure and a wide array of representation from different cultures and identities come policies and practices within laws that mimic the same diversity we see. To truly form laws, bills, and practices that serve the people of the United States, we must include the voices of everyone who makes up its diverse population. If we continue to attempt to homogenize politics and exclude those who fall outside of the traditional “norm,” we will continue to face the ongoing human rights issues we see in the U.S. today such as the stripping of reproductive rights, mass rates of incarceration among communities of color, inequality within education, housing discrimination, lack of support services and community-based programs for people with disabilities, and many more.

Ultimately, it’s up to us to critique what language we endorse within politics that translates to active forms of discrimination and othering. What can start as merely a “mean” comment can have severely long-lasting impacts on how we perceive various communities and groups by reinforcing hurtful and misleading stereotypes that further shape the next generation’s understanding of what it means to be a truly “fit” leader.

So, if we continue on this path, then we’ll only continue to see the age of ableism and apologia among us, once again, in the next election term.

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