Pennsylvania Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman’s wife Gisele Baretto Fetterman has criticised an NBC News interview with her husband, for the way the network discussed accommodating the lawmaker with closed captioning after he suffered a stroke.
Mr Fetterman suffered a stroke in May, shortly before the Pennsylvania Senate primaries. As a result, he uses closed captioning to better communicate, which was employed during a recent sit-down interview with NBC News journalist Dasha Burns.
The interview itself was ultimately overshadowed by an extemporaneous comment from Ms Burns while promoting the appearance on the network. She told viewers that it seemed like Mr Fetterman was unable to follow their small-talk conversation ahead of the interview without the use of the closed captioning assistance.
“During some of those conversations before the closed captioning was rolling it wasn’t clear he could understand what we were saying,” Ms Burns said on NBC while promoting the interview.
The comment sparked a firestorm of fierce reactions, with other journalists claiming Mr Fetterman had no trouble following their conversations and Mr Fetterman’s critics pouncing and arguing it showed the candidate was not up to the task of serving as a US senator.
Ms Fetterman criticised the interview.
“If this happened in a school, if this was a child that was ableist towards another child or a teacher, there would've been issues stated. There would have been new training done,” she told The Independent in an exclusive interview. “What is being done at the media after a reporter came out so openly ableist towards a person? I think shocked and appalled, but sadly not surprised. I know there's still so much to do, but it would be great to see some accountability, to actually see real change.”
Ms Fetterman has been married to Mr Fetterman since 2008 and since his stroke, she has become a major surrogate for him. Ms Fetterman said that she worried about the damage that the interview would do for the disability community.
“And I would love to see an apology towards the disability community from her and from her network for the damage they have caused,” she said.
The second lady of Pennsylvania said that she has heard from other people with disabilities about their difficulties asking for accommodations.
“We have received so many messages from folks who said, ‘This is exactly why I'm afraid to seek accommodations. This is exactly why I'm afraid to pursue a different position because of exactly what your husband has gone through,’” she said. “So I think he's shown what he's experienced, but a lot of people saw themselves in him.”
Jessica Benham, a Democrat and the first openly autistic state legislator in Pennsylvania’s history, said many journalists don’t understand understand what a disability is and what accommodations are, as well as what people with disabilities are legally entitled to.
“More broadly, it reinforces stigma around the general competency of people of disabilities to do work, or participate as equal members of society” Ms Benham told The Independent.
“The lieutenant governor has a lot of privilege,” Ms Benham said. “So for him, obviously, the stigma is still there. But the impact of this kind of portrayal could do much more with people with disabilities with significantly less privilege.”
Ms Fetterman said that accommodations aren’t a way to give her husband special treatment in interviews, but rather are a means to hold him accountable.
“It's to even the playing field. It's to bring more people into these spaces. And the fact that certain journalists have behaved like this around closed captioning just shows how devoid of disabled people so many spaces are,” she said.
For Ms Fetterman, the lack of accommodations is personal. A native of Brazil, she grew up in New Jersey but did not know that she had ADHD until a diagnosis in adulthood.
“So I grew up uninsured,” she said. “And I knew accommodations would've made my life so much better growing up. I knew something. I knew I thought differently. I knew my brain worked differently, but it wasn't until I was an adult with insurance that I was able to go through the process and actually be diagnosed.”
Similarly, she notes how since she is a native Portuguese speaker, she used closed captioning to learn English.
“It still benefits me since I think in Portuguese. So for many bilingual people, closed caption is something that we use every single day,” she said.
Shortly after the interview aired, Democratic Senator Bob Casey, who is Pennsylvania’s senior senator and is an outspoken supporter of disability rights as chairman of the Senate Aging Committee, defended the use of closed captioning in an interview with NBC.
“Closed captioning does not hinder his ability to serve. In fact, we should be doing more to bring all Americans closer to the heart of the governing process,” he tweeted.
Mr Fetterman, who served as mayor of Braddock from 2006 to 2019 before winning Pennsylvania’s second-highest office in 2018, is locked in a tight race against former television host and physician Mehmet Oz. Polling shows Mr Fetterman with a slight lead that Republicans have eroded in recent months thanks to a barrage of ads about Mr Fetterman’s record on crime.
In addition, Dr Oz’s campaign has accused Mr Fetterman’s campaign of using his stroke to avoid a debate. His communications adviser Rachel Tripp told Business Insider in August that “If John 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.”
In addition, in a statement in August, Dr Oz’s campaign assailed Mr Fetterman for ducking debates and said the campaign “will pay for any additional medical personnel he might need to have on standby.” That led to Mr Fetterman pulling out of the debate.
But Ms Benham said that Mr Fetterman’s recent experiences with a stroke will impact his policymaking if he were elected.
“Anybody can be disabled, especially if they live long enough,” she said. “I trust as well that the lieutenant governor will continue to learn from other people with disabilities about the ways in which policy impacts our lives and I certainly trust in his empathy and ability to treat other with dignity that we all deserve with being human beings.”
Both Ms Fetterman and Ms Benham said people without disabilities do not recognise the ways in which accommodations exist throughout the world.
“No one thinks about someone who needs a pair of glasses to read as being something that is somehow special or out of the ordinary, I think because a lot of people end up needing glasses,” Ms Benham said, noting how she uses contact lenses. “The fact there are ways in which we accommodate people everyday that no one gives much thought to, but then all of a sudden, something captions, people lose their minds and think they’re doing something oh, so special, that’s literally the floor.”
In the same way, Ms Fetterman said the experience is a teachable moment.
“So I think this is an opportunity to highlight accommodation tools, how they're helpful, how technology can be helpful, and have people talking about it,” she said, noting how a quarter of Americans have a disability. “This shouldn't be something to treat as a scandal. That was an immense disservice that she did towards the disability community and I think towards so many Americans.”
Since his stroke, Mr Fetterman has since come out in favor of some policies that people with disabilities support, such as ending the practice of paying people with disabilities below minimum wage.
Ms Fetterman said that her husband would be an ally of people with disabilities.
I think for him, this makes him that much a better senator for having firsthand experience and that much more compassionate and empathetic, because he knows firsthand what this is like and what he's experienced being new to the disability world and what folks who have lived their entire lives in this world, what they face every single day,” she said.
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