Disabled Politicians Can Lead the Way

Those elected to office don't have to be able-bodied to serve effectively

William Ryan avatar

by William Ryan |

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When I did standup comedy back in the day, I had a bit I worked on for a while, but could never quite get right. The routine assumed that if I, a person with cystic fibrosis, ever decided to run for political office, I’d be forced to make myself look strong with workout videos or others in which I’d look like a UFC fighter, or probably more like a World Wrestling Entertainment superstar.

The bit was inspired by a segment from the HBO show “Last Week Tonight,” in which host John Oliver looked at Ramzan Kadyrov, head of Chechnya, and his Instagram feed, which the show says features videos of his boxing, wrestling, and even fighting with an alligator. Kadyrov, a UFC fan, does not have a terminal illness like me. However, the idea of these videos is to make him look strong and masculine — and in some ways, that’s what all politicians want.

Sadly, the perception around the world is that people with disabilities are too weak and nimble to change the world within the political system. People with disabilities may be viewed as courageous for their fight against their illness, but they’re often expected to sit back and let the more able-bodied lead the way.

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You may be reading this and saying, “But Will, the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt (with polio) and John F. Kennedy (with Addison’s disease) are behind us! No rational person believes that!”

And you would be incredibly wrong. Here in the United States, we recently had our midterm elections, which, among other contests, elect federal officials to serve in Washington, D.C. One of the people elected to the Senate a few weeks ago was Lt. Gov. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania. Fetterman is quite a large man and before May of this year was seen as the overwhelming favorite to become Pennsylvania’s next senator.

However, Fetterman had a stroke on May 13. That next week he won the Democratic primary, allowing him to run in the general Pennsylvania race. Since then, he’s worked to gain back the auditory processing skills he once had. When he debated his opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz, back in October, the perception afterward was that his verbal struggles had hurt his cause.

Despite all of this, Fetterman won the race and will become Pennsylvania’s next senator. However, I continue to see people mocking Fetterman on social media and some news outlets for his recovery struggles, saying he can’t do the job because of his disabilities.

To quote a typical phrase of President Joe Biden, who has his own auditory issues, “That’s a bunch of malarkey.” I personally don’t care which party you support. Disabled people can be effective leaders just as much as the able-bodied. We’ve done it before, and we can still do it.

We shouldn’t have to hide our diseases like Roosevelt, who hid his polio, or Kennedy, who hid his many medications for Addison’s and other conditions during the 1960 presidential race and beyond.

I have no problem when someone disagrees with politicians over their policies. I can respect it, because disagreeing over political philosophies and then coming to a middle ground is how the political backbone of this country was founded. We should be able to have free and open dialogue without attacking one another based on race, gender, sexuality, and disability. We, as disabled people, will continue fighting for respect until the days of ableism are well behind us.

Plus, let’s face it. No one wants to see me do a workout video. I have terrible form doing squats.

Note: Cystic Fibrosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Cystic Fibrosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to cystic fibrosis.


Helen Palmiero avatar

Helen Palmiero

Will, your columns are so very informative - I just keep learning and learning. Your God-given gift of humor is also very refreshing (and hysterical!) Much Love, Helen



Another great job Will. Love you


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