But while some have seen Fetterman’s hesitant speech and need for closed captioning as evidence of cognitive impairment, the conversation surrounding his fitness is grounded in prejudice and ableism. The polished, articulate and polished image we associate with the ideal politician means that anyone who does not meet this ideal is considered inferior – and therefore “unfit”. But this understanding of what makes someone fit for a job is actually rooted in eugenics.
In 1883, British polymath Sir Francis Galton first developed eugenics as a science to enhance the innate qualities of the human race. Eugenics invaded American society around the turn of the 20th century as a progressive solution to the widespread problems caused by groups deemed “socially inadequate”.
For eugenicists, science said that “moral” deficiencies were hereditary and threatened the health of the nation. This meant that the solution to social problems like crime, promiscuity and poverty targeted the “morally degenerate” for institutionalization and sterilization. As Galton envisioned, human improvement was possible only through consistent scientific intervention brought about by eugenics: “What nature does blindly, slowly and ruthlessly, man can do with foresight, speed and kindly.”
Yet, at its core, eugenics simply applied a scientific gloss to existing prejudices of race, class, and gender. Immigrants, people with disabilities, and racial and ethnic minorities were among those who were socially “unfit.” As historian Natalie Lira explains, new terms such as “moron”, “fool”, “weak-minded”, and “degenerate” stigmatized those who clashed with these existing prejudices. And their alleged lack of fitness has been deemed detrimental to the future of the race – making these groups susceptible to fundamental attacks on their freedom.
The language of eugenics was deeply rooted in American culture and extended to all aspects of life. The eugenics impulse created perceptions about what kinds of “desirable” traits—intelligence, health, looks, and success—and thus who should breed to propagate normal or superior traits, and who shouldn’t.
Controlling human reproduction through better reproduction was a necessity. In a 1914 article in the Virginia Law Review, for example, J. Miller Kenyon asserted that sterilization should be practiced “on all the unfit, a class which includes not only the insane, the insane criminals, but also rapists, syphilis and the degenerate”. .” Such arguments extended to “handicapped” – a label equated with a defective being – leading to the involuntary sterilization of 60,000 disabled people during the 20th century.
What justified such drastic ideas? The good of society as a whole.
Such issues justified the adoption of deeply inegalitarian and sectarian policies. In 1919, for example, Detroit police revoked licenses held by deaf drivers after legislation prohibited “defectives” from operating motor vehicles; over the next 20 years, deaf people also had to fend off proposals to ban deaf drivers in many other states.
The exclusionary power of eugenic fitness significantly shaped how Americans viewed people with disabilities and chronic illnesses. If the goal of eugenics was to define the normal, fit, and genetically superior individual, then the logical corollary was that anyone who did not meet that standard should be subjected. This made them mostly unsuitable for positions of power.
This understanding has forced politicians with disabilities to go to great lengths in concealing their disabilities from the public. Although many voters were aware of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s battle with polio, Roosevelt went to great lengths to hide his inability to walk and project his strength and manhood – using canes, leg braces and even the Secret Service to ‘walk’ – to avoid being seen as weak, even as opponents launched whisper campaigns declaring he was ‘unfit’ for the presidency. Several of Roosevelt’s successors also hid significant ills: Dwight D. Eisenhower had Crohn’s disease, and public perception of John F. Kennedy’s youthful vigor was only possible because he hid the impact of the disease Addison’s and other medical issues.
But the work of disabled activists in the decades following World War II began to change what was politically possible for the disabled. They protested against ableist ideologies that saw people with disabilities as inherently defective and argued that discriminatory policies needed to change. Energized by other civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, activists forged coalitions with disabled veterans, student activists and other groups, their efforts culminating in lobbyist Patrisha Wright labeled “the golden age of disability rights legislation”, including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990.
Massive moral and legal victories, Section 504 and the ADA paved the way for increased accommodations and opportunities for Americans with disabilities to hold office – with more candidates with disabilities appearing on the ballot at every election, especially at the local and state levels. For the first time, the exclusion of people with disabilities in public spaces was considered discrimination and these laws guaranteed the protection of people with disabilities to ensure that they had the same opportunities for employment, education and lodging. This countered eugenicists’ insistence that it would be better for society to separate and sterilize people with disabilities. It also helped potential applicants with disabilities qualify and transformed the way Americans perceived them.
Despite these gains, as disability rights advocate Sarah Blahovec writes, too often applicants with disabilities still face scrutiny, have their autonomy denied or their agency stripped away. Indeed, prejudice, inaccessibility and ableist bias not only prevent people with disabilities from running for office, but studies have indicated that voters tend to follow a “hierarchy of impairments” when determining whether a candidate is eligible to be elected. They disavow applicants who have highly stigmatized conditions or disabilities — such as deafness, blindness, bipolar disorder, cancer or HIV — that they believe might impede their ability to function effectively. Indeed, researchers Lisa Schur and Douglas Kruse reported in 2019 that the percentage of elected officials with disabilities — one in 10, with the most common disabilities being hearing impairment and mobility impairment — remains below nearly 16% of the adult population that is disabled. .
People with disabilities have long fought for inclusive spaces for themselves within society and politics and have challenged ableist assumptions about their lives and worth because they know firsthand that every politics is essentially a disability issue, from jobs and health care to mass incarceration and voting. And they know they can handle any job – as Disability Design Advocate Liz Jackson points out, people with disabilities are the “original hackers”, people who adapt to their circumstances and are forging a path through the world of people with disabilities by creating new objects and pathways that allow them full participation.
These skills—and the unique perspective they provide—help explain why abandoning eugenics-shaped ideas about disability would benefit American society and government. The need for adaptation and accommodation is not a character flaw but an opportunity to examine the world through different perspectives. Seeing the world through these lenses could inject new understandings into our government and produce policies that will collectively benefit us all.
Rather than a disability, disability can be a force to bring new ideas and perspectives to our government. Although John Fetterman’s auditory processing issues may run counter to traditional standards of fitness for function, his candidacy provides us with an opportunity to re-evaluate ideas that are long outdated.