Last week, I traveled to DC to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the FDR Memorial. Most people don’t realize how big of a deal it is that the memorial now includes a depiction of FDR in a wheelchair. It was only because of advocates from the disability community – people who worked to build momentum and support to ensure FDR’s disability was depicted as a point of pride and not shame – that the sculpture including a wheelchair was added to the memorial in 2001.
When FDR first took office in 1933, the country was in the midst of the Great Depression. Approximately 15 million Americans were unemployed, many having lost not only their jobs, but their savings – two million people were homeless and living in shacktowns and encampments as they migrated across the country looking for work. This period represented the highest unemployment rate in United States history. Even during COVID, unemployment (14.7% in 2020) did not reach the same level as it did during the Great Depression (24.9% in 1933). During his first 100 days of office, FDR took action to help the American people, laying the groundwork for federal programs that provide relief to American citizens.
The Great Depression would not represent the only challenge that FDR would face throughout his presidency. In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland and marked the beginning of World War II. When Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, we officially joined the war. Under his leadership, the United States became a superpower.
He did all of these things as a person with a disability. When he was 39, FDR contracted polio – over a decade before he was elected president. As a result of contracting polio, he experienced paralysis in his legs and used braces or a wheelchair for the remainder of his life. Throughout his political career, FDR was counseled to hide his disability and to avoid having his wheelchair be visible in pictures so he would not be seen as weak. Though we have made strides, stigma is still a barrier to people with disabilities being seen as equals in the United States – and globally. This stigma plays a part in how we are viewed as members of the Disability Community, as well as how we view ourselves. Yet, FDR did not let stigma stop him from not only becoming one of the most celebrated presidents in United States history but being elected for an unprecedented four terms.
When the FDR Memorial opened in 1997, the decision was still being made to hide his disability. As a person living with epilepsy and hard of hearing, I know what it feels like to have someone tell you to hide or downplay your disability. It took years of campaigning, the combined efforts of over 50 disability organizations, and support from members of FDR’s family to have a sculpture added to the Memorial that depicted him using a wheelchair. As a person with disabilities, I can’t describe the feeling you get when you visit the memorial and get your first view of President Roosevelt sitting proudly in his wheelchair.
So many people with disabilities spend a lifetime having people doubting them, pitying them, and being told they can’t achieve their dreams. For those who join the disability community later in life, there is a constant focus on new limitations and how they will impact them. Yet, after gaining a disability, FDR went on to become President of the United States. He could have given up but chose to return to a career in politics. He made global impacts through his leadership. This memorial is a message to all people with disabilities about what can be accomplished when you don’t allow stigma to deter you from your path.
President Roosevelt said, “The barrier to success is not something which exists in the real world; it is composed purely and simply of doubts about ability.”
I am so honored to be an advisor for the FDR Memorial Legacy Committee and a part of this wonderful group charged with not only promoting information about the FDR Memorial but improving inclusion and accessibility so all visitors, now and in the future, can experience the memorial.