The 164-year-old Senate chamber was not designed for wires and screens. Senators aren’t even allowed to use their phones when they’re inside. But to help with freshman Senator John Fetterman’s stroke recovery, the chamber just got a digital upgrade.
As Fetterman learns how to do his new job while struggling with lingering auditory processing issues resulting from the stroke, he’s relying on some extra tech. The new assistive technology installed in his workspaces requires some adjustment from colleagues in an institution known for its stagnancy. But in securing the devices that are helping him begin a new job during a very public recovery process, advocates say Fetterman is forging a path for people with disabilities and health challenges to make it in public office.
The auditory processing issues that sometimes make it difficult for Fetterman to communicate became a focus during his Senate campaign last fall. Opponents criticized the Pennsylvania Democrat’s October interview with NBC, during which he relied on closed-captioning technology to understand the reporter’s questions and sometimes mixed up words, and slammed his shaky debate performance. Though Fetterman provided some information from his doctor in the months leading up to the election, he would not release his full medical records, and critics questioned his ability to function in the Senate. Voters were less concerned: Fetterman handily beat Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz in one of the most competitive races in the country.
Soon after the election, the Office of Congressional Accessibility Services began talking with Fetterman about what accommodations he would need when he arrived. Primarily, he required the same sort of technology he used on the campaign trail, which allows him to read what people say in real time, much like the closed-captioning that TV viewers might use.
According to information shared exclusively with TIME, the Sergeant at Arms (SAA) has installed a permanent live caption display monitor at Fetterman’s desk in the Senate chamber that can be raised or lowered depending on whether he’s sitting or standing. There’s a similar monitor with a custom desk stand that can be placed on the dais when he takes shifts presiding over the Senate. Both wired screens will work without internet if needed, relying on the Senate Office of Captioning Services’ stenotype machines, caption encoding hardware, and staff in the Capitol itself. The SAA has further plans to improve the set-up at Fetterman’s desk with a monitor stand that blends better with the desk’s antique woodwork and can be electronically adjusted.
The SAA has also come up with a plan for Fetterman’s work during committee hearings and elsewhere around the Capitol. In those cases, Fetterman can read a live transcript of the proceedings that appears on his wireless tablet. All of the captions will be produced by professional broadcast captioners rather than artificial intelligence in order to improve accuracy. The work builds on a request from last Congress, when Senate leadership asked the SAA to move toward providing closed captioning for all Senate hearings. SAA plans to upgrade its capabilities to do so, starting with the committees Fetterman serves on. He will participate in his first committee hearings on Feb. 1.
The SAA worked with the office of the Secretary of the Senate, the Senate Rules Committee, and Senate leadership to get Fetterman’s assistive technology in place, although doing so did not require any rules changes, since the SAA has the authority to provide Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) accommodations to Senators and staff who need them.
“I am proud of the work our team has done to support Senator Fetterman and am grateful to the many Sergeant at Arms professionals who worked quickly to develop and implement these innovative solutions,” Senate Sergeant at Arms Karen Gibson tells TIME in a statement.
Fetterman’s office did not make the Senator available for an interview for this story. Since the election, Fetterman has not talked much to reporters in impromptu settings around the Capitol, and he did not respond to a question from TIME on his way to the floor this week. A member of Fetterman’s staff says they are working on accommodations for Fetterman to interact with reporters in the Senate halls.
“I do think that John Fetterman—his example personally, and the example the Senate is setting—will be really helpful to a lot of people,” says Maria Town, President and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities. “It’s going to take many, many people, both people with disabilities and non-disabled people, actually saying, ‘Okay, we can make this happen in our workplace, in our church, in our community centers.’”
New colleagues adjust
When Fetterman arrived in the Senate for orientation late last year, Pennsylvania Democrat Bob Casey noticed that some of the other lawmakers weren’t sure how to interact with his state’s newest Senator.
“They were coming up to talk to him and, in a room where there’s a lot of other competing voices and noise, I just think people didn’t realize,” Casey says, referring to the fact that closed-captioning technology can work less well in such settings. “What I made sure that I did one day at a caucus meeting is to stand up and explain that to people, so that when they next saw John, they would be more aware that he has an accommodation. But it may not work in every instance.”
Before desks got reshuffled, Senator Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat, sat next to Fetterman on the Senate floor. She found it easy to converse with him. “He’s got his iPad and he just reads speech-to-text,” she says. “He’s been very engaged.”
Duckworth, who lost her legs while serving in the Army in Iraq and uses a wheelchair, became the first disabled woman elected to the Senate in 2016. She says accessibility has improved since she first arrived, with the addition of a lift in the chamber that lets her preside over the Senate and a new ramp into the cloakroom.
Disabled senators have gotten other accommodations in the past, as well. Then-Senator Tim Johnson was able to use an electric scooter and have his desk moved when he returned to the Senate floor in 2007 following a brain hemorrhage. Reporters were sensitive to then-Senator Tom Harkin’s request to speak into his “good ear” by the end of his tenure in 2015. In an institution where the average age is nearly 64 and the oldest members are nearing 90, some lawmakers get subtle accommodations for their needs as they age, others point out.
“We adjust,” says Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren. “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.”
Fetterman’s auditory processing difficulties are sometimes invisible. He can hold a Zoom meeting like any other Senator, says Warren. During a vote this week, he could be seen on the Senate floor exchanging a few words with another lawmaker without appearing to read from a device.
Though stroke victims’ recoveries tend to plateau as time goes on, Fetterman’s colleagues say his condition is still changing. “My sense is he seems to be less reliant than he was maybe a month or two ago,” Casey says about Fetterman’s assistive technology. Fetterman’s team last released information from his doctor in October.
Senator Ben Ray Luján, a New Mexico Democrat, just marked the one-year anniversary of his own stroke, which he sustained in office and caused him to spend a month away from the Capitol. Over the past several months, he says he and Fetterman have discussed their recoveries. “You always work to get better,” Luján says. “I’ve seen that with John… Every time I’ve spoken to him, he’s been stronger and stronger.”