Since Hillary Clinton’s bout with pneumonia recently, the health of both major party presidential candidates has become a topic of conversation, a point of access into — presumably — an element of their being that affects their ability to be president. Clinton and Trump have both worked to persuade constituents of their physical well being.

This is a problem. The problem is not that Hillary Clinton works when she’s sick or that Donald Trump is overweight and controls his cholesterol through medication. Rather, the problem is that the candidates’ physical bodies have become a focal point in our evaluation of their qualifications to occupy the Oval Office.

Speculation and analysis of presidential candidates’ health are not new, of course. There’s a history of inquiry into potential presidents’ potential health concerns, including President Obama’s smoking habit, Secretary Kerry’s prostate cancer, and Bill Clinton’s hoarse voice.

Likewise, presidents’ attempts to conceal health issues are not new. While tracing historical accounts of presidents attempting to keep health conditions private, Brian Naylor explains that Grover Cleveland even staged a fishing trip just to climb aboard a boat and have a tumor removed from his mouth. On a boat.

Presidents feeling that they need to keep health issues private is a symptom of an ableist society that does not allow for physical differences and impairments to be seen as they should: as both expected and normal.

I am not a disability studies scholar, and I routinely struggle with my own ableist attitudes and actions. (Ableism, as defined by Oxford Dictionaries, is discrimination in favor “of able-bodied people.”) Debates about Clinton’s and Trump’s physical health concern me because an assumption within such debates is that a president needs to be in top physical condition in order to lead the United States.

An assumption within that assumption would be that persons who have physical disabilities could not serve in this role.

I’ve known an individual with high cholesterol who is also a dynamic speaker. And a business owner who, along with amazing negotiating skills, has multiple sclerosis. And a successful community organizer with a BMI that falls well outside the U.S. Center for Disease Control’s “Healthy Weight” category. These statements aren’t surprising or enlightening, because they’re normal. We don’t need to have empty medical charts to be successful and to effect change (FDR!).

I’m not looking for a ban on all conversation around politicians and physical health. Instead, this is a call for a productive dialogue, where presidential candidates can disclose health issues and illnesses as they might have influenced their national health care platforms without having those health issues and illnesses be a measure of the candidates’ abilities and worth.

An English professor at the University of Maine at Augusta since 2014, Elizabeth Powers teaches introductory and advanced writing courses, and coordinates a writing lab which allows her to work individually with students on their writing skills. Powers’ scholarly focus is on Rhetoric and Composition, especially rhetorical theory, visual rhetoric, and writing center studies.


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