The response to John Fetterman’s debate performance reveals the stigma employees with disabilities still face. Here’s why the discourse needs to change

October 28, 2022, 8:43 PM UTC
John Fetterman speaking in front of a microphone while standing at a podium wearing a black hooded sweathshirt.
Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman is one of millions of Americans living with a disability, yet the discourse around his debate performance against Dr. Oz revives the importance disability inclusion and visibility in politics and in business.
Michelle Gustafson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Happy Friday.

A lot of you agreed with me that Kanye “Ye” West’s slow descent into bigotry and problematic speech was a long-missed opportunity to curb the harm that kind of power can perpetuate. “You so perfectly stated the issues around supporting Kanye West all these years and the deep issues surrounding his behavior. Although his antisemitic rants were the straw that broke the camel’s back, as a society we are all responsible for letting it get to this point,” wrote one reader. And plenty thought that major brands should have weighed in much, much earlier. His anti-Blackness wasn’t bad for business, so they let that slide, was the general theme.

But issues around disability were once again front and center in the raceAhead ecosystem after a televised debate, between Pennsylvania U.S. Senate hopefuls John Fetterman—the state’s lieutenant governor—and television celebrity Dr. Mehmet Oz, revived ableist talking points about Fetterman’s performance.

Fetterman is still recovering from a stroke he suffered five months ago. His halting speech—worsened in part by the unusual format of debates—became a flash point for politicians, media figures, and online chatter. It was a “rocky debate performance,” declared the AP, echoing a mainstream consensus. 

Online commenters, reading from an outdated playbook, piled on in similarly cringe-inducing ways.

“There is no amount of empathy for and understanding about Fetterman’s health and recovery that changes the fact that this is absolutely painful to watch,” tweeted one prominent commentator, who was quickly buried by counter-sentiments in response.

People with disabilities are underrepresented in political life but not completely absent. But it is an issue, says Andrew Pulrang, co-founder of CripTheVote, a campaign to encourage people with disabilities to engage in policy and politics. “Disability and disability accommodations are a question mark for a lot of people — they raise questions, they raise suspicion,” he told the Washington Post, talking about the stigma disabled candidates continue to face.

But the lingering rhetoric around Fetterman’s performance is symptomatic of the insidious way we still think and talk about people with disabilities, which leaves it to business to help reshape an exclusionary narrative.

Disability is the only segment of underrepresented talent that anyone can join, often quite suddenly, at any time. That’s part of what made the new “realization” during COVID that anyone could work from anywhere such a breakthrough for disabled talent.

That breakthrough is about to be put to the test.

Currently, some 1 in 4 Americans live with a disability, and at least 70% of disabilities are not readily apparent. But by late 2020, the CDC declared COVID a disabling event, with more than one million newly disabled workers attempting to navigate their new reality.

Expect those numbers to grow.

While a new study from the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability and the Kessler Foundation finds that employers are responding—some 78% of 3,800 supervisors surveyed said their workplace established or changed the way they provide accommodations because of the COVID pandemic—big questions remain about whether leaders are going to be nimble enough to both welcome talent with existing disabilities and retain employees with new ones.

“Our community is growing exponentially from long COVID,” Jill King, a disability rights advocate who is disabled, told NPR. “More people are needing [accommodations] as well as asking for them.” That means that employers are in the hot seat to make sure they feel safe enough to do so. “[Workers], as well as all other nondisabled employees, deserve to feel safe to bring their whole selves to work. And this means being unafraid to disclose a disability and seek any support they may need in the workplace,” said Julie Sowash, executive director of the nonprofit consultancy Disability Solutions, in an interview with the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

One big bright spot in the news this week has been how members of the public were increasingly able to make the distinction between Fetterman’s recovery and his ability to think, lead, and continue his work in public service. The public’s response, in some regards, has put the pundits to shame.

“To see someone who is in recovery, using these tools that were fairly new to him, and doing so in a public debate where the stakes are so high, and all eyes are on him – it’s pretty incredible,” Maria Town, the president of the DC-based American Association of People with Disabilities told the Guardian. “I have a lot of respect for what he was doing.”

Next week, I’ll be digging more deeply into how systemic racism has sidelined voices of people of color in the disability rights movement.

More interesting stuff below.

Wishing you an incredible weekend.

Ellen McGirt

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Ashley Sylla.

On point

A Thai media “tycoon” and transgender advocate has bought the Miss Universe pageant. And I am here for it. The pageant, previously owned by former U.S. president Donald Trump, was purchased by Anne Jakkaphong Jakrajutatip, the CEO of JKN Global Group PCL, a Thailand-based media company. Jakrajutatip has been outspoken about her experiences as a transgender woman and has been a longtime advocate for LGBTQ+ issues in Thailand. She’s also famous for her appearances on Thai versions of reality shows, like Project Runway, evidently. She paid $20 million for the property, and I'm already picking out my viewing party outfit.

Mostly good news in the latest Hollywood diversity report. As part of its newly structured Entertainment and Media Research Initiative, the now annual Hollywood Diversity Report from UCLA shows a meaningful increase in diversity since the 2019/2020 season. But researchers warn that those changes may not be permanent, particularly in leadership roles in writer’s rooms and beyond. “The next few years may be a true test of whether Hollywood is truly committed to the changes they promised during the nation’s reckoning on race following the murder of George Floyd,” Ana-Christina Ramón, co-author of the report, told the Hollywood Reporter. Social media engagement is higher when shows have truly diverse casts; despite clear consumer interest in entertainment with majority-minority casts, actors of color were still underrepresented in lead roles on broadcast TV, though in better shape on cable and in film.
Hollywood Reporter

Wharton gets it  The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania is planning to offer students a new program of study in diversity, equity, and inclusion, beginning in the 2023-2024 academic year, reports my colleague Paolo Confino in the must-read newsletter CHRO Daily. It will combine courses already within the Wharton curriculum that, when taken together, provide essential skills to deliver both the “ethical promise” of DEI with the necessary financial returns. "Our students have challenged us to do more to prepare them for the new realities of leadership, which involve creating and sustaining diverse, equitable, and inclusive organizations,” says Stephanie Creary, a Wharton professor of management. Sign up for CHRO Daily here.

On background

Missing summer fun? Head to Crip Camp. In this poignant essay, Maysoon Zaid, an actor, comedian, and activist with cerebral palsy (and a raceAhead favorite) reviews Crip Camp, a 2020 Netflix documentary that won or was nominated for a slew of awards. She begins by sharing her experience as the only disabled kid at a traditional summer camp. “As I dragged myself up the Appalachian Trail, I could never have imagined that decades earlier a camp existed for kids like me. Crip Camp tells the story of that fantastical place I never knew existed that changed the course of disabled history in America,” she says. The story follows a teenaged Jim Lebrecht, now a disability rights activist, but then a kid in a wheelchair whose life was about to be changed by the hippies who ran Camp Jened in Hunter, New York. Crip Camp was produced by Higher Ground, the production company founded by Barack and Michelle Obama.
Refinery 29

For journalists with disabilities, obstacles abound but so do solutions. Michelle Hackman now covers immigration policy for the Wall Street Journal, but in this first-person account, finding a job was never guaranteed. “Those who make it in the field are the standout go-getters who seek out work-arounds to lessen the burden of their disabilities on employers,” she explains. They become their own IT experts, often hacking together solutions that help them do their work without drawing attention to perceived limitations. “And they are the ones willing to tolerate relentless, if latent, prejudice from sources and editors alike who often have trouble squaring disability with competence.”

Parting words

"My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn't prevent you doing well, and don't regret the things it interferes with. Don't be disabled in spirit, as well as physically.”

Stephen Hawking

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