In the spirit of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Disability Rights Award was named in his honor to reflect the contributions of the 32nd president of the United States. Roosevelt’s disability exemplifies that physical disabilities hold no barriers to achievement.
Roosevelt was the only president to enter office with a physical disability.
In 1920 Roosevelt served as New York state senator and assistant secretary of the Navy and run as James M. Cox’s vice president on the Democratic presidential ticket. But after losing to Republicans Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge, the 38-year-old Roosevelt left public life, however, to become vice president of Fidelity and Deposit Company of Maryland.
But, in 1921 while on a vacation in Nova Scotia, Roosevelt contracted polio. In a 1924 letter to Dr. William Egleston, he wrote:
“First symptoms of the illness appeared in August, 1921 when I was thoroughly tired from overwork. I first had a chill in the evening which lasted practically all night. The following morning the muscles of the right knee appeared weak and by afternoon I was unable to support my weight on my right leg. That evening the left knee began to weaken also and by the following morning I was unable to stand up. This was accompanied by a continuing temperature of about 102 and I felt thoroughly achy all over. By the end of the third day practically all muscles from the chest down were involved. Above the chest the only symptom was a weakening of the two large thumb muscles making it impossible to write. There was no special pain along the spine and no rigidity of the neck.”1
Although he recovered some strength in his legs, Roosevelt was fitted with heavy braces that eventually allowed him to stand and even walk, with canes, using a rocking motion from his hips. When not in public, however, he got around with the help of a wheelchair.
Some biographers and commentators spread the misconception that Roosevelt took great pains to hide his infirmity, in collusion with the news media.
Ambassador William vanden Heuvel, chairman emeritus of the Roosevelt Institute, disputed that claim in a recent letter to New York Times.“He did not conceal his physical limitation except to prevent his opponents from making political capital out of it,” the ambassador wrote. Some Republicans tried to attack the President as “a cripple” unfit to serve, but dropped the strategy after they ran into a brick wall of public opinion,” Ambassador vanden Heuvel wrote.2
“To F.D.R., this was not ‘a sickness’ – one of the reasons he is an icon for people with disabilities. He educated American’s to understand that disability is not illness and that we can master the limitations caused by disability,” Vanden Heuvel added.
Still, FDR was concerned the public would view him as weak and only allowed one family photo of himself in a wheelchair. tHe never made a point of his disability nor tried to use it to gain sympathy. But, as he letter to Dr. Egleston shows, he was always ready to talk about it and was often photographed standing arm-in-arm with a family member or aide for support. His very visible support of polio research and therapy helped create the March of Dimes that led eventually to an effective vaccine and the Warm Springs Rehabilitation Center.
And because he never made a point of it, neither did the news media, particularly in those days when reporters were more willing to draw a distinction between a president’s public and private lives. Rather than a “cover-up” it was simply overshadowed by the force of the man’s personality and the momentous events of his four terms in office.
In that same spirit, the Disability Rights Award named in his honor seeks to encourage United Nations member states to accept their citizens with disabilities as vital and productive members of their societies and economies, and to remove the barriers to achieving their potentials.