Democratic Senate nominee Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Republican nominee Mehmet Oz participate in the Pennsylvania U.S. Senate debate at WHTM-TV’s studios in Harrisburg, Pa., on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022. (Photo by Gregory Nash/WHTM Television)
By Kathleen Marchetti
The only debate in the U.S. Senate race between stroke survivor John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz highlights how difficult it can be for people with speech and processing disabilities to access politics and does not necessarily reflect on Fetterman’s ability to serve as a senator. As both a stroke survivor and a political scientist, let me explain how the debate lays bare shortcomings in Fetterman’s own campaign and in our political system.
Even before his stroke, Democratic nominee Fetterman wasn’t a great debater and had a tall order in taking on a seasoned television professional like Republican nominee Oz. Fetterman’s campaign should have been more upfront about Fetterman’s struggles with auditory processing.
He seems to also experience aphasia. The campaign has been careful to avoid this term, instead describing Fetterman’s challenges as “mushing together” or “dropping” words, a point which Fetterman acknowledged at the opening of the debate. I experienced aphasia after my own stroke in March 2021 and know how it feels to have clear sentences in your mind but have different words—or no words at all—come out of your mouth.
As neuroscientist and fellow stroke survivor Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor recently discussed, these challenges reflect the parts of the brain that have been affected by a stroke. In Fetterman’s case, it appears that the part of the brain connecting thoughts to speech may have been disrupted. This does not mean Fetterman’s cognition or thinking processes are reduced, and aphasia is something that can improve with both therapy and time, as it did for me. Indeed, Fetterman is already attending speech therapy. If the campaign had been more forthcoming about the fact that Fetterman is struggling with both auditory processing and what appears to be aphasia, voters may have been more prepared for what they saw in the debate.
The debate also demonstrated biases in modern politics against people with disabilities, particularly those with challenges in cognitive processing and speech. In conversations with my doctors, it was explained to me that processing challenges are similar to asking a computer to complete a complex task with many programs open simultaneously. Eventually, the task will get done it just takes a little bit longer to get from point A to point B.
The expectation of fast, immediate, cogent responses is nearly impossible for people with processing challenges to meet even if thoughts are present in their minds. It was evident that when the response clocks started, Fetterman needed more time to read his opponent’s and the moderators’ words and process a reply.
A more equitable debate structure would have allowed for the additional processing time that Fetterman currently needs. The speed with which Dr. Oz spoke also made it difficult for someone with processing challenges to follow, myself included.
Finally, voters need to know work in the Senate does not proceed in the same way as a televised debate. The Founders created the Senate to be the more deliberative representative body where slower, purposeful policymaking would prevail. Today, senators have staff to help with research and constituency service as well as time to process and communicate ideas.
This is a governing style that is particularly suited to people with processing difficulties, and it stands in stark contrast to the quick sound bites taken from a debate.
While the debate was most likely viewed by committed partisans who have already made their vote choice, I remain concerned that voters will inaccurately conclude that Fetterman’s speech and processing challenges reflect on his ability to serve in the Senate.
In a race as close and consequential as Pennsylvania’s 2022 Senate contest, I encourage voters to research stroke recovery and processing challenges to better understand how far Fetterman has already come. Better yet, voters could speak with one of the millions of stroke survivors about their recovery process.
In doing so, hopefully voters will base their decisions on Fetterman’s policy positions rather than his current challenges.
Kathleen Marchetti is an associate professor of political science at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. She survived a stroke caused by a heart defect at age 36.
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