John Fetterman Drama Shows Media's Ignorance of Disability

It's Disability Employment Awareness Month, but press is still impeding progress

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It’s Disability Employment Awareness Month (DEAM). So why, in a nationally aired news piece, are we still questioning disability, employment and personhood and therefore placing an ableist lens on accommodations?

Disability is part of the human experience. The way advertising, marketing, social media and news coverage frames the narrative has the potential to either advance welcoming or continue to misrepresent, polarize and other disability communities.

Pennsylvania politician John Fetterman had a stroke earlier this year. Note that I didn’t write he suffered from a stroke or, in any way, is currently suffering.

Much of the lieutenant governor and Democratic Senate candidate’s interview with NBC News’ Dasha Burns focused on questions surrounding his health, capacity to serve and commentary regarding his accommodations of captioning during the conversation. This proliferates misperceptions and ableism toward viewing many people with disabilities as unfit to hold certain positions.

This political coverage directly connects to disability employment and highlights the progress that still needs to happen in the media. Fetterman is disabled and seeking employment as a politician. Prior to Fetterman’s disability, he was seen as a frontrunner and praised by media. But since his stroke, questions and commentary have pivoted from asking about his legislative perspectives to unfounded and invasive health inquiries.

The reporter’s informality of their perceived appropriate and necessary questions concerning his disability pushed the dialogue into extremely private information that should have no relevance to the campaign. No one questions disabled Senator Tammy Duckworth in relation to her job performance, and they shouldn’t have questioned Fetterman.

People with disabilities in the U.S. and across the globe are underemployed, in part, because of misperceptions around ableism. Considering any language conveyance and interpretation, other than hearing and speaking, as lesser than is ableist and poor, uninformed journalism. This is especially true when we’re seeing imaginative storytelling through captioning, sign language and audio descriptions among agencies, brands and streaming services.

Many among disability communities and allies are pushing back and calling out how the esteemed national news reporter handled the interview. Even more concerning is how producers and the larger news team didn’t recognize any issues.

Scrutiny from the reporter of Fetterman’s stroke and associated auditory differences is disappointing when compared to the positive contrast of how brands, such as LinkedIn, and celebrated business leaders including Richard Branson are shifting perceptions about nonapparent disabilities such as dyslexia and neurodiversity.

Most are familiar with concepts and concrete examples of racism and sexism, but ableism as a bias is both lesser known and misinterpreted as not harmful or derogatory by many people without disabilities. Non-disabled viewers or those working in news and creative industries may chalk up these media missteps to the limited interactions between themselves and people with disabilities and their lack of disability knowledge.

That said, many brands, agencies and media outlets are educating, welcoming and hiring disabled talent and bolstering their ranks with accessibility centers of excellence, inclusive design leads and allies to effectively push back and stop ableism. News organizations, including The New York Times, employ journalists who openly, and proudly, share their lived disability experiences and who equitably engage the topic.

My hope was that this interview was an anomaly, as Comcast NBCUniversal was highly recognized in 2022 by the nonprofit Disability:IN as a best place to work for disability inclusion, and the media conglomerate funds scholarships to students with disabilities via the American Association of People with Disabilities.

However, even though it has been more than 30 years since the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and we are seeing Oscar-winning films championing disability representation and rights, such as CODA, more needs to be done.

October is Disability Employment Awareness Month, a time to reinforce welcoming employees with disabilities, supporting those that self-identify as disabled and allyship. For Fetterman and so many others, we simply want to be recognized and considered as viable candidates, coworkers and creative doers.