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‘Weaponizing Fitness to Serve Is Undermining Our Democracy’

May 17, 2024

Jasmine Harris and Laura Hannon
Jasmine Harris and Laura Hannon

At The Hill, Prof. Jasmine Harris and Laura Hannon SP2’23, L’24 write that “some politicians find success in being transparent about disability, but it requires diligence and defense.”

At The Hill, Jasmine E. Harris, Professor of Law, and Laura Hannon SP2’23, L’24 argue that fitness to serve is undermining our democracy.

“The way we represent and discuss disability in public service matters,” write Harris and Hannon. “People with disabilities are not simply passive subjects of service but must be active public servants participating in democratic governance at all levels.”

Harris is a law and inequality legal scholar with expertise in disability law, antidiscrimination law, and evidence. Her work seeks to address the relationship between law and equality with a focus on law’s capacity to advance social norms of inclusion in the context of disability.

From The Hill:

On Monday, U.S. Rep. Jennifer Wexton of Virginia advanced her most recent legislation on the House floor using text-to-speech assistive technology. Last year, Rep. Wexton revealed her diagnosis with Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP), a rare neurological disability that progressively impairs motor functioning. While not the first elected representative to use assistive technology (Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman also communicated through text-to-speech after his stroke), the visibility of her disability matters more than you might think for democratic legitimacy.

The modern public servant is given two choices when it comes to disclosing disability: keep quiet and pray no one finds out, or disclose and endure the invasive, career-threatening scrutiny.

Current conversations about disability and fitness generate a distrust of disability, guided by an entrenched risk aversion to perceived physical or mental vulnerability. Despite being the largest minority group in the country, disabled people remain underrepresented in public service.

As many as 1 in 4 people in the U.S. have some form of disability, compared to an estimated 1 in 10 disabled politicians. Miscalculated risk aversion to disability undermines the accessibility of public service and, as a result, threatens democratic legitimacy and the mission of antidiscrimination laws to advance a pluralistic, inclusive society. As Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts remarked about Fetterman’s use of assistive technology: “This just means the Senate caucus looks a little more like the rest of American people who have different challenges, but who are out there doing their jobs every day.”

Read the full piece at The Hill.