FDR: A debated legacy

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Question:  In which ways was FDR’s disability kept quiet during his presidency?

a. FDR tried to hide his disability from the public during press conferences and speeches.

b. FDR limited the photos that were taken while he was in his wheelchair.

c. Both of the above.

d.  Neither of the above.

Answer: c. Both of the above

Franklin Delano Roosevelt is often cited as one of the most important and successful American presidents of all time. Yet, despite his importance in the American psyche, he is rarely recognized for another noteworthy aspect of his presidency: being the first and only president with a visible disability. How has this significant detail managed to avoid public consciousness? According to Richard Harris, director of students with disabilities development at Ball State University, it began with an implicit agreement between FDR and the public to avoid photos and stories about his disability. To a certain degree, that agreement between FDR and the public still continues today – and has stirred up controversy in the debate over the 32rd president’s legacy.

Multiple  choice quiz,  pencil, eraser, pencil sharpener and timer

Multiple choice quiz

In 1921, at the age of 39, FDR developed a life-threatening case of polio. Despite Roosevelt’s attempts, he would never regain the use of his legs, forcing him to rely on wheelchairs and crutches for the rest of his life. Starting with his run for governor of New York in 1928, Roosevelt sought to conceal his disability from the public. Roosevelt and his aides believed it was necessary that he concealed his disability in order to win elections, so all of FDR’s appearances were carefully staged to make it appear that he was upright and walking when, in reality, he was being supported by walking aids, relatives or bodyguards.

Photographers and journalists complied with this deception; it was considered inappropriate to photograph FDR in his wheelchair and an invasion of privacy to interview Roosevelt about his disability. Of the roughly 10,000 photographs of the president, only four show him in his wheel chair. This mutual “deception” by FDR and the public led to little acknowledgment of his disability during his presidency.

Even today, the way Roosevelt handled his disability is a point of contention within the disability rights community. On one hand, the president’s deception can be regarded as a perpetuation of the negative stereotype that people with disabilities are weak or not fit for leadership roles. FDR failed to utilize the spotlight to break down these stereotypes. On the other hand, Roosevelt was highly involved with disability organizations like March of Dimes and was successful in demonstrating that people with disabilities could prosper in the highest roles of society.

In 1997, this tension over FDR’s legacy came to a head, when the Roosevelt Memorial in Washington D.C. was constructed with a statue depicting the president seated in a chair with an ornate cloak covering any evidence of wheels. Many disability rights activists and scholars were outraged, wanting the monument to depict a “truer” version of Roosevelt’s life. After five years of struggle, President Bill Clinton announced in January 2001 that there would be an additional statue added to the monument showing a typically-clad FDR seated in a wheelchair.

Though the disagreements over FDR’s legacy persist, most agree that the election of a president with a visible disability was a huge step for the American public. It was no secret at the time that Roosevelt had a disability; it was just the extent of his disability that was concealed by the media. FDR’s election was a civil rights achievement that was much before its time – and is often completely forgotten today.

In a 1998 editorial in the New York Times, FDR’s grandson Curtis Roosevelt summed up the importance of remembering the civil rights aspect of his grandfather’s history,

“As the years go by, fewer and fewer Americans will appreciate the fact that their forebears were quite happy to elect a handicapped person as president of the United States. We cannot allow the memory of FDR’s disability to fade even more. A full picture of this extraordinary American political leader must be given.”

As the conversation over FDR’s legacy continues on, the president’s disability must not be minimized.

Sources:

1. An article titled “FDR made ‘tacit agreement’ with public about disability” written by Stacy Anderson and published in University of Michigan’s Online Record.

2. A New York Times editorial titled “FDR: A Giant Despite His Disability” written by Curtis Roosevelt.

3. An article titled “Roosevelt, Franklin D.” written by Daniel J. Wilson, published in Encyclopedia of American Disability History ed. by Susan Burch.

4. An article titled “Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial” written by Sheila C. Moeschen in Encyclopedia of American Disability History ed. by Susan Burch.