State of Mind

The Real Significance of John Fetterman Using Closed Captioning

John Fetterman stands in front of a mic and waves.
Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. and U.S. senatorial candidate John Fetterman delivers remarks during a “Women for Fetterman” rally at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, on Sept. 11. Kriston Jae Bethel/AFP via Getty Images

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As he continues his recovery from a life-threatening stroke back in May, Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman has made an aggressive return to the campaign trail. But as he prepares for an upcoming debate with his Republican opponent, Mehmet Oz, he’s facing new questions from mainstream journalists about his health—questions that show how little many of them understand about disabilities and appropriate accommodations.

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On Tuesday, NBC Nightly News aired a conversation anchor Dasha Burns held with Fetterman just four days prior—his first on-camera appearance since the stroke. The interview excerpt broadcast on the waves and clipped for social media centered on how this wasn’t a “typical” chat with a candidate; Burns introduced it by noting Fetterman “required closed captioning for this interview to read our questions as we asked them” due to lingering effects from his stroke. She further mentioned that during “small talk” prior to the interview, “without captioning, it wasn’t clear he was understanding our conversation.”

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The segment then cut to Burns asking Fetterman out loud, “Can voters trust that you will be able to do this job on day one?” The candidate, pausing as he reads her words on the Mac in front of him, takes a moment before responding, without taking his eyes off the screen, “Yeah, of course!” The clip then touched on Fetterman’s issues with auditory processing in the wake of the stroke, showed him stumbling while searching for the word empathetic, and zoomed in on his computer-focused face while he read Burns’ questions about voter concerns.

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There was much more in the full interview posted on NBC’s website, including discussion of abortion, crime, and marijuana. But these three minutes were what took off—and elicited hostile reaction across the mediasphere. Prominent reporters from the New York Times and CBS implied that this “rough clip” would lead voters to doubt Fetterman’s capability. CNN piggybacked off the NBC interview to air a chyron reading, “Fetterman Now Uses Closed Captioning to Understand Conversations,” a statement that, as other reporters pointed out, was incredibly misleading. (For one, Fetterman has been using closed captioning since the stroke, and both his campaign and the reporters covering it have disclosed that fact.) The segment soon reached conservative media, whose commentators insisted the NBC interview showed that Fetterman’s condition was far more debilitating than a “conventional disability” and should disqualify him from office. Tucker Carlson joined in on Wednesday night, braying to his Fox News audience that “before the machine was turned on, John Fetterman could not understand human language.”

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Everything about the situation was incredibly upsetting for observers with disabilities. On both social and traditional media, many have pushed back against both the framing of the NBC segment and the aggressive responses. “The way Burns handled that interview will only worsen attitudes and violence towards disabled people,” disability activist Charis Hill told BuzzFeed News. Sara Luterman, a 19th News reporter and former Slate contributor, pointed out on Twitter that she also has auditory processing issues and thus uses closed captioning, without it impeding her job. “It’s a pretty common disability and a pretty common disability accommodation,” she told me. “I use the same [captioning] technology in meetings and interviews.” Eric Michael Garcia, an autistic congressional reporter, added that closed captioning should be seen as akin to “glasses, braces, wheelchairs, or crutches—a means for people with disabilities to access public life.” Daylina Miller, a multimedia journalist at NPR’s Tampa-based member station who struggles with auditory processing, wrote to me that “I also wear glasses, and can’t function as a journalist or a person without them, but that’s a common enough medical issue that no one bats an eye.”

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It can be difficult for the general public to understand auditory processing disorders, since they differ from typical forms of hearing loss, and chronic forms are rare. Plus, not everyone with a stroke ends up with auditory processing issues, and not everyone with auditory processing problems got them from a stroke. Usually, there is nothing wrong with someone’s ears; rather, auditory processing issues usually entail a slower ability to recognize or mentally process certain sounds and modes of speech. In Luterman’s experience, “I can hear people talking, but my brain doesn’t put together what they’re saying, or I mishear,” she told me. “I can hear and understand people most of the time, but I won’t always remember.”

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While Fetterman has not declared a specific diagnosis for his condition, a number of medical experts told the Washington Post that his public experiences are not atypical for either stroke survivors or people with auditory processing issues—and there are pathways to full healing, through time and therapy. Neurological specialists further informed the Post that Fetterman’s condition has “nothing to do with overall intelligence,” because “there are a number of areas where understanding can be impaired, even if someone has no hearing loss or intellectual disability.” A deaf media observer also told the paper that real-time captioning, which automatically transcribes words as they’re spoken, “is often riddled with mistakes or has significant lags.” That could mean Fetterman’s seemingly slower reading and response time was a “purely mechanical issue” as opposed to a physiological one. (One possible reason why such programs don’t work as well as they could: insufficient funding and legislative support for disability services.)

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All in all, this is likely a temporary thing. In June, Fetterman released a letter from his cardiologist stating that the candidate “should be able to campaign and serve in the U.S. Senate without a problem” as long as he follows recommended medical practices. The Democrat himself professed, during the interview with Burns, that “I’m gonna get better and better, every day,” alluding to this week’s spate of media appearances and speeches, all coming after months of absence from in-person campaigning. He’s often said he’ll be using captioning during Oct. 25 debate with Oz and that in general, “as long as I have captioning, I’m able to understand exactly what’s being asked,”

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But what has really infuriated disabled people—who, the CDC says, make for 26 percent of the U.S. population—is the insinuation that Fetterman’s use of this common technology should keep him from serving public office. “Fundamentally, the argument is that disabled people are too sick to exist in public or to hold positions of leadership,” Luterman said to me. It’s an ableist trope that persists even though there are more disabled politicians in Congress than ever before, including Sen. Tammy Duckworth and Rep. James Langevin. Indeed, as my colleague Jim Newell wrote last month, the supposition that “halting speech while recovering from a stroke could make someone an ineffective senator … really is a leap.”

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“There are plenty of older senators or members of Congress who cannot do their job, but because they don’t use closed captioning, they are somehow seen as able to do it,” Eric Garcia told me.

Fetterman’s openness about the accommodations he’s using, as well as the most visible health issues he’s facing, could appeal to more viewers than broadcast news realizes: A 2019 Journal of Policy Analysis and Management study found that about 23 percent of American adults could benefit from workplace accommodations, yet about half of them do not take advantage. It’s not unlikely that attacks of the kind Fetterman is now facing contribute to a stigma that prevents people from utilizing adjustments—like closed captioning—that they’re legally entitled to through the Americans With Disabilities Act. This is in part why more people with disabilities don’t run for public office, even though their backgrounds and input could lead to more laws that would aid millions of Americans. As an MSNBC column put it: “If having a stammer or a hearing impairment disqualifies someone from running or holding office, are we living up to the promise of democracy and government by the people?”

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It’s certainly fair to ask whether a politician is up for the job they’re going for. Voters are also entitled to informed, reasoned coverage of their candidates’ conditions—and their disabilities should not be demonized in public life, especially if we’re talking about conditions and tools as common as auditory processing and closed captioning. Daylina Miller, who uses closed captioning for meetings at their workplace, told me that “no one running for office should have to be subjected to doubts of capability for needing accessibility devices.” The reactions to NBC’s Fetterman interview show we still have a long way to go.

State of Mind is a partnership of Slate and Arizona State University that offers a practical look at our mental health system—and how to make it better.

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