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Fetterman needs closed captioning. So what?

As a deaf mayor, I need accommodations, too. Stop judging Fetterman by his disability, instead of his qualifications or his knowledge.

Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate John Fetterman appears at a rally in Lions Park in Bristol, Bucks County, last week.
Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate John Fetterman appears at a rally in Lions Park in Bristol, Bucks County, last week.Read moreTom Gralish / Staff Photographer

On Tuesday, NBC aired an interview with John Fetterman. It was closely watched, as people had raised concerns about Fetterman’s ability to communicate following a stroke in May. As a result, Fetterman is using captioning to address some common issues that linger after a stroke, related to language and auditory processing.

During a significant portion of the interview, rather than talk about the issues facing Pennsylvania and what Fetterman can bring to the Senate, the reporter spent time addressing the awkwardness of captioning, and why he needs it.

Pennsylvania has often worked to remain rooted in inclusivity. From William Penn’s belief that everyone’s connection to God should not be subject to persecution to the central role played in the Underground Railroad to being one of the first states to ratify the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote. Closer to our modern times, Pennsylvania’s legislature has a state representative with autism (Jessica Benham of the 36th District) and a state senator who uses a wheelchair (Christine Tartaglione of the 2nd District).

It is disappointing that so much attention, both by the media and by political commentators, is being directed toward the accommodations necessary for Fetterman as he campaigns for a U.S. Senate seat while recovering from his stroke.

» READ MORE: NBC News is getting some heat for its interview with John Fetterman

In 2021, I was elected mayor of North Wales Borough in Montgomery County. While this is not remarkable by itself, the fact that I am a deaf person who has used American Sign Language (ASL) for most of my life makes that unique. In fact, I’m believed to be the first deaf person using ASL to be directly elected to the office of mayor in the United States.

To do my job effectively, I use ASL interpreters during formal meetings and events. These trained professionals make sure I have access not only to the spoken language in the room but also to the tone and temperature in the room. In impromptu and informal situations, I use automated transcription apps to bridge that gap.

These accommodations, the interpreter and the mobile apps, are how I access the language that my broken ears simply can’t. To be an effective mayor, I use all of the tools at my disposal: my varied experiences from my volunteer firefighting, working at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and being a dad to two amazing sons. I also benefit from the team of professionals we have in the borough and our shared commitment toward the community we serve.

The interpreters and automated captioning devices available to me are simply some of the tools I use to do my work, as much as a laptop or a mobile phone is for any other elected official.

Whether you plan to vote for Fetterman or not, you have to acknowledge that it’s remarkable that he decided to continue his campaign after the stroke, which would have sent many other people to a quieter life.

“Imagine if we judged Franklin Delano Roosevelt solely by his wheelchair.”

Neil McDevitt

Instead, he is taking the path that many disabled Americans have taken before him: using accommodations to continue to participate fully in our civic and social arenas. The candidate now knows how millions of Americans are often judged solely by the accommodations they request and not the sum total of their knowledge, experiences, and passions.

It’s truly unfortunate that media coverage, his political opponent in the Senate race, and Pat Toomey, the outgoing senator whose seat Fetterman is seeking, are standing on the wrong side of history to judge Fetterman by his accommodations and his disability, not by his qualifications or his knowledge.

Imagine if we judged Franklin Delano Roosevelt solely by his wheelchair. Or if Sen. Bob Dole, who had lifelong injuries in his arm and hands after serving in World War II, was never elected to office. In 2012, Sen. Mark Kirk suffered a stroke but continued to serve until 2016 when he lost to Tammy Duckworth, who also has disabilities from her military service in Iraq.

Though disabled people have proven time and again to be effective leaders and public servants, our government continues to lag behind in representation in many ways. When the media and politicians focus on accommodations instead of issues or the positions they hold, they’ve lowered themselves to being the playground bullies who picked on the kids who were different in elementary school.

My experience as an elected official has shown that voters can and have moved beyond childish views on disability. We can be better. We should expect better.

Neil McDevitt is the mayor of North Wales Borough in Montgomery County. He’s also the executive director for the Deaf-Hearing Communication Centre, a nonprofit serving the Deaf, hard of hearing, and deaf-blind community in the Philadelphia area.