An x ray showing a chest cavity, plus a slice of a lung

Disability (and) Politics: The Fetterman Fiasco of Fall 2022

In Fall 2022, conservative pundits condemned Senator-elect John Fetterman (D-PA), who had survived a stroke the previous spring, using discriminatory rhetoric. They claimed that because he was communicating using closed-caption technology, he was unfit for office. In addition, they suggested that his disability would render him unfit to perform the duties of his office. Evidently, such critics assume that the multifarious workplace responsibilities of an elected official cannot be performed using closed captioning, even though most public servants’ duties occur behind the scenes and do not require public speaking.

Moreover, even those responsibilities that do require public speaking, such as political rallies to communicate with supporters and constituents, actually benefit from closed captioning. This adaptive technology makes the message accessible to more voters, including non-English speakers, people who could not afford to take off from work and travel to attend live events, and home-bound older constituents, as well as folks with sensory and/or physical disabilities. All of these individuals can use recorded, transcribed, and translated versions of speeches more easily than in-person, audio-only, and English-only versions. So what I came to think of as the Fetterman fiasco was about anti-immigrant, anti-poor, and anti-elderly discrimination, as well as anti-disability rhetoric.

I am not an expert on disability, past or present. However, if “the personal is historical,” as the Nursing Clio tagline puts it, surely I have something to offer as an historian currently suffering from a significant disability that mimics the symptoms of a politician under fire for using adaptive technology and techniques – the same adaptations I used to produce this article while suffering from memory loss, brain fog, dyslexia, and dysgraphia.

The Fetterman fiasco erupted during my research leave from my academic home, the University of Montana. The purpose of my leave is to work on a book about Progressive-era social reformer and sex researcher Katharine Bement Davis – who herself has a few ableist skeletons in her closet as a one-time advocate of eugenics.

John Fetterman at a podium, wearing a suit.
John Fetterman at the 2019 inauguration. (Governor Tom Wolf/Wikimedia Commons)

In late September and early October, as Fetterman’s campaign gained momentum and his critics intensified their crusade against him, I found myself with some spare time on my hands during a week-long stay in a hospital in Poughkeepsie, New York, far away from my research notes and laptop computer, as I recovered from a serious case of pneumonia – specifically, an uncommon form of the infection more commonly known as Legionnaires’ Disease.

Unlike most victims of Legionnaires’ Disease, first identified in the 1970s, I was not part of a large-scale outbreak. Indeed, public health authorities remain baffled about how I contracted a disease usually transmitted via contaminated water in hotel and hospital HVAC systems, given that I was nowhere near the New York City nursing home where a series of infections coincided with my own illness. While I could have been exposed in Montana or en route to New York, my symptoms revealed themselves – dramatically – in downtown Poughkeepsie, at a celebratory retirement dinner for Vassar College Professor Emerita Miriam Cohen.

I had met Miriam at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in January 2020, and we subsequently corresponded about our shared interest in Progressive-era reformers. When she arranged for me to give a lecture on Davis, who had graduated from Vassar in 1892, I was thrilled not only to get insights from Miriam and her colleagues but also to conduct research in Vassar’s Archives and Special Collections.

After a night in Vassar’s historic Alumnae House, I spent a productive day in Vassar’s library, happily snapping pictures of students’ photo albums and scrapbooks. The next day, when the archives were closed, I toured the campus, visiting the Dome Room in the former Astronomical Observatory, where Davis lived during her final year at Vassar. All in all, I was having a great visit. I was ready to enjoy the reception, lecture, and dinner in Miriam’s honor before resuming my research the following day.

Then disaster struck. I had felt unwell since my arrival, but I chalked it up to exhaustion, nerves, and hunger. I had recently had shoulder surgery, which caused me to tire easily, and due to feeling unwell, had barely touched food during my visit. I was 99.9 percent sure I didn’t have COVID or Flu A or B as I had been vaccinated in Missoula before traveling. I also had taken a home COVID test, which was negative. Therefore, I decided to soldier on. I was confident that despite my general queasiness, severe migraine, and possible fever, my thorough preparation – and sheer stubbornness – would carry me through.

So, I delivered the lecture. I think it went fine, although I have very little memory of it. As I later learned, while Legionnaires’ Disease initially manifests like food poisoning or stomach flu and eventually leads to breathing problems and liver damage, it also causes significant cognitive impairment.

Over the next several days and weeks, I would suffer from memory loss and brain fog. In addition, I experienced both dyslexia and dysgraphia. Once I got over fearing I was going to die from liver failure or lung damage, I started worrying about how I could pursue my calling as an historian – a reader, researcher, writer, editor, speaker, and teacher – if I could not type, write, or read – and sometimes, not even think?

As it turns out, the solution is simple, if not easy:

  1. Rest and recover. I’ve seen a lot of healthcare professionals since returning to Missoula, both allopathic and naturopathic practitioners, and they all agree on one thing: I should anticipate a lengthy recovery, anywhere from six months to two years. More than two months out from the initial onset of symptoms, I still tire easily. I also must limit both physical and mental exertion – and avoid emotional distress – to prevent a racking cough that results in violent vomiting. Having said that, my most troubling “Long Legionella” symptoms, such as memory loss and brain fog, persisted only for a couple of weeks. I’m convinced that allowing myself to rest completely – no TV, no reading, no computer time – helped me to recover quickly.
  2. Use adaptive technology. I already was familiar with dictation software due to an earlier bout of carpal tunnel syndrome, which prevented me from typing for a full year. Thanks to the demands of teaching in the COVID era, I also had become reasonably competent at using Zoom. Because one of the new classes I taught during the first year of the pandemic was devoted to collecting oral histories of the ongoing public health crisis – using Zoom – I knew that Zoom produced auto-generated transcripts. Familiarity with these adaptive technologies came in handy as I grappled with a new set of challenges. On days I cannot type or write, I use dictation software (available on both Google Docs and Microsoft Word) or set up a Zoom session to create an auto-generated transcript.
  3. Ask for help. I’m fortunate enough to have been able to hire research assistants to help me organize my notes, transform my handwritten notes into typed text, and continue research at Vassar. Not everybody is able to hire a research assistant, of course, but there are other options, such as offering academic credit in lieu of cash. Friends and family also provided needed assistance with day-to-day tasks. One friend simply showed up, day after day, to take my dog hiking when I was too unwell to walk. Others took turns driving me to and from medical appointments when brain fog made it unsafe for me to drive. Finally, my partner took on the lion’s share of domestic responsibilities for many weeks.

As far as I can tell from news coverage about Fetterman, these are exactly the steps he’s taken, although not, of course, in the exact same way, since his disabilities are not exactly the same as mine, as far as I know. (Given the negative responses I’ve gotten when I’ve come clean about experiencing brain fog and memory loss, I imagine Fetterman also might be reluctant to share all his personal medical details with the public and the press!)

And here’s the thing: They all work! By managing my time and energy carefully and relying on these general guidelines, I’ve been able to return to research and writing for several hours each day. Research assistants near and far have allowed me to work many more hours by proxy. Since my release from the hospital, I’ve not only collected, organized, and transcribed additional primary research material, but also written a mini-memoir of my experience with Legionnaires’ Disease and submitted a major grant proposal to support my current project – as well as authored this piece. And this is only ten weeks out from the initial onset of symptoms!

So, Fetterman – and his supporters and critics – can rest easy in the sure knowledge that there is no reason a significant disability, whether temporary or permanent, should disqualify anybody from a job that they are otherwise qualified to do.

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