Jasmine Sturr has a rare form of Parkinson's. While earning her undergraduate degree in chemistry and planning for a career in medicine, she had brain surgery — twice — and recently had a feeding tube permanently placed into her stomach, due to an atypical side effect. But this 21-year-old is also an extremely smart and compassionate person. And it bothers her when she hears people muse that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton's cough must mean she has Parkinson's — and that this would make her unfit to be president of the United States.
"Hearing Parkinson's disease used as a slur against Hillary is honestly deeply hurtful," said Sturr, who lives in the Los Angeles area. "Even if she had a disability, and I do not believe she does, using it to make it seem like she could not serve as president... is plain offensive. You are actively harming the community and reinforcing the false idea that disabled people are exactly what society has deemed us: less than."
Health has been a major topic during this election. One reason is the ages of Clinton and her Republican rival, Donald Trump — if Trump, 70, wins, he will be the oldest newly elected president in U.S. history, with Clinton, 68, being the second-oldest (Ronald Reagan was just days from turning 70 when he was inaugurated in 1981). Another is the way their health issues — both documented and imaginary — are being used against them. Since her concussion in 2012, Clinton has been accused of hiding a bigger medical problem, and her recent pneumonia diagnosis — and the fact that she didn't announce it until after she nearly fainted at a Sept. 11 memorial — only complicated things and furthered the narrative that she is untrustworthy. For Trump, the focus is more on his mental health, with people stumbling over themselves to publicly psychoanalyze him, possibly adding to the stigma already surrounding mental illness. There was also his incessant sniffling during Monday night's debate, and a whole back-and-forth about stamina.
But does such speculation even matter to voters?
Citizens are "trying to evaluate and analyze from their armchairs what is going on, and we start reasoning from our partisan and social affiliations," said Renee Van Vechten, an associate professor of political science at the University of Redlands in Southern California. It's unlikely that a Republican Trump supporter will proclaim that his candidate is a classic narcissist, just like an ardent Clinton backer won't say her garden-variety pneumonia is masking something fatal.
"We have access to so much information, we feel we are all ready to be experts on everything," Van Vechten said. "Most of this information we are seeking will not help us choose a better or worse president." Indeed, she said, "if our goal is to choose a capable person, then focusing on anything beyond basic health information — is this person basically in good health — is not going to make us more intelligent voters."
And there's an oft overlooked effect of our feverish focus on candidates' health: It can really turn off voters who have health problems themselves.
For Sturr, the tone surrounding the conversation about the candidates' health points to a larger issue facing chronically ill and disabled people in the United States. Sturr says she often feels like "the other," especially when she is out in public in her wheelchair. "People stare, people are afraid of you, they pull their kids closer to them," she said. "Other people go out of their way to try to help you in the most pitiful ways. They feel sorry for you, as if your life isn't even worth living because you got sick. Or worse, when your disability is invisible, when you park in a handicapped spot and don't have a chair and people give you nasty looks or come up and harass you for taking the spot. It's just demoralizing."
"They see me and don't believe that I have plenty of joy in my life, that the PD drugs and infusions are all that I am," she said. It's even worse when she accomplishes something, because she's told how "inspiring" she is. "I have the drive of anyone else, but because I have a disability, I'm not expected to even try," she said. "Just look at the Paralympics — the way the news talks about disabled athletes versus able-bodied athletes just shows that a disabled person can't do anything without people being surprised that we just want to enjoy our lives like everyone else."
This played out on a larger stage last November, when Trump imitated Pulitzer Prize-winner Serge Kovaleski, a New York Times reporter with arthrogryposis, a joint condition.
Trump claimed later that he didn't know Kovaleski, who had previously covered him, and said he "merely mimicked what I thought would be a flustered reporter." That worried Sturr, who wonders how Trump views the disabled community, and how he would represent their interests.
"What Trump saw was not a journalist, not even a man," Sturr said. "He only saw the out of the ordinary, he only saw the different, instead of seeing the person, he saw a condition and he exploited it. He stripped that person of all that he had done and made him only a disability."
How much does the public have a right to know about the health of Clinton, Trump, and any other politician?
There are privacy laws in the United States, but part of being an informed voter is knowing if your candidate can fully assume the duties that come along with being commander-in-chief. Everyone can agree that the country needs a healthy president. While having a brief bout of pneumonia or taking a cholesterol-lowering drug won't interfere with a person's ability to lead, having some sort of psychosis or anything else that makes decision-making difficult would. And of course, it seems only logical to ask for basic medical information to get an idea of where a candidate's health is at, in addition to any major diagnosis, such as heart disease or cancer. A president's odds of surviving his or her term in office matters, and the public surely has a right to know of any pre-existing condition that might lower those chances.
But we don't actually have the legal right to know.
There are only a few requirements to become president of the United States: You must be a natural-born U.S. citizen, at least 35 years of age, and have lived in the United States for at least 14 years. You don't have to release your medical records or tax returns. But we've come to expect that you will.
"They are asked to release certain information, and pressure starts mounting to do it," Van Vechten said. "These norms change as candidates capitulate to new expectations, and new boundaries get set. If enough people don't subscribe to those boundaries or believe they are fair, in the next go around, they are renegotiated again."
In the 1950s, Dwight D. Eisenhower became the first president to really go into detail about his medical history. He suffered a heart attack, and let his doctor freely speak about it with reporters. Before that, presidents kept their health tightly guarded; FDR did what he could to keep the fact that he was paralyzed from the waist down under wraps, and Grover Cleveland went so far as to board his friend's yacht so he could look like he was on vacation when he was actually having a tumor surgically removed.
John F. Kennedy followed in that close-to-the-vest tradition. The youngest-ever elected president had a litany of health issues, starting from the time he was a child. His medical records show that he had colitis, prostatitis, and Addison's disease. At times, it was too difficult for him to even reach across his desk to grab paperwork, due to osteoporosis in his back, and he took a cocktail of medications to manage the pain. He went to great lengths to keep his conditions secret, afraid that it would ruin his career in politics.
Robert Dallek, author of An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963, told ABC News that he was able to examine Kennedy's private medical records and papers, and found that during the Bay of Pigs invasion and Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy was on steroids for his Addison's disease, painkillers for his back, antibiotics for urinary tract infections, antihistamines for his allergies, and anti-spasmodics for colitis. Because these medications caused such side effects as sleepiness and depression, he took even more anti-anxiety pills, but they didn't seem to affect his ability to lead. "I studied very closely his performance during these crises, and what was striking is how effective he was," Dallek told ABC News. "He made a bet with himself and the country, in a sense, that he could be president, and he carried it off brilliantly. It was extraordinary."
A president's health matters. But the details matter, too. It's up to the candidates to provide those particulars while remembering there's no such thing as a typical American — and people of all abilities are paying attention.