I Am A Stroke Survivor: The Fetterman-Oz Debate Shows The Challenges We Face | Opinion


By Kathleen Marchetti

The lone debate in the US Senate race between stroke survivor John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz underscores how difficult it can be for people with speech and processing disabilities to access politics and does not reflect not necessarily Fetterman’s ability to serve as a senator. As a stroke survivor and political scientistallow me to explain how the debate lays bare the shortcomings of Fetterman’s own campaign and our political system.

Even before his stroke, Democratic candidate Fetterman was not a great debater and had a big challenge to take on a seasoned television professional like the Republican candidate Oz. Fetterman’s campaign should have been more direct about Fetterman struggle with auditory processing.

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He also seems to experience aphasia. The campaign was careful to avoid that term, instead describing Fetterman’s challenges as words of “hustling” or “letting go,” a point Fetterman acknowledged when opening the debate. I experienced aphasia after my own stroke in March 2021 and know what it feels like to have clear sentences in your mind but different words – or no words at all – coming out of your mouth.

As neuroscientist and fellow stroke survivor, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor discussed recently, 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 that connects thoughts to speech may have been disrupted. It doesn’t mean Fetterman’s cognition or thought processes are reduced, and aphasia is something that can improve with therapy and time, as for me. Indeed, Fetterman is already present speech therapy. Had the campaign been more open about the fact that Fetterman struggles with both auditory processing and what appears to be aphasia, voters might have been better prepared for what they saw in the debate.

The debate also demonstrated biases in modern politics against people with disabilities, especially those with cognitive processing and speech problems. In conversations with my doctors, I was told that treatment challenges are similar to asking a computer to perform a complex task with many programs open simultaneously. Eventually the task will be completed, it just takes a little longer to get from point A to point B.

Fetterman and Oz go head-to-head in the first — and only — debate of the U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania

Expecting quick, immediate, and convincing answers is almost impossible for people with processing problems, even if thoughts are present in their minds. It was apparent that when the response clocks started, Fetterman needed more time to read the words of his opponent and the moderators and process a response.

A fairer debate structure would have allowed for the extra processing time that Fetterman currently needs. The speed with which Dr. Oz spoke also made it difficult to follow up with anyone with treatment issues, myself included.

Finally, voters should know that work in the Senate is not conducted in the same way as a televised debate. The Founders created the The Senate will be the most deliberative representative body where slower, more focused policymaking would prevail. Today, senators have staff to help with research and constituency service as well as time to process and communicate ideas.

It’s a style of governance particularly suited to people with processing difficulties, and it contrasts sharply with fast-paced sound bites from a debate.

While the debate was most likely seen by engaged supporters who have already made their voting choices, I remain concerned that voters will incorrectly conclude that Fetterman’s speech and treatment issues reflect his ability to serve in the Senate.

In a race as close and consequential as the 2022 Pennsylvania Senate contest, I encourage voters to research the challenges of stroke recovery and treatment to better understand how far Fetterman has already come. Even better, voters could speak with one of the millions of stroke survivors about their recovery process.

In doing so, we hope voters will base their decisions on Fetterman’s policy stances rather than his current challenges.

Kathleen Marchetti is an associate professor of political science at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. She survived a stroke caused by a heart defect at age 36.

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