FDR: Splendid Deception

A shocked country watched silently while its noteworthy leader lingeringly and painfully spiraled downward towards physical demise. The country knew, yet seemed to be in denial. Did FDR feel that he could survive by evading the issue that appeared to be so very obvious to all but him? We might ask ourselves if things could have turned out differently for the country, had he not attempted to conceal his illness. History has spoken; it's too late to change the annals of our past. Nonetheless, we can learn from the many marked imprints that embody mankind's pathway through the ages.

FDR's biographer, Hugh Gallagher, called it "FDR's splendid deception." He was referring to the illusion used by Franklin Delano Roosevelt to hide his disability. Why wouldn't he allow closure for those who loved and respected him, and would the public have been less immobilized if he had?

We're now living in a very different age. During FDR's era, it wasn't the trend to unmask, what were considered to be, vulnerabilities. Newsreels at the movie theaters presented disheartening views of people lying flat in iron lungs. These large and glowing barrel-shaped mechanisms were the only understanding that the public had of those whose lungs needed assistance as a result of infantile paralysis. This scenario was, and still is, a reality. However, only a negative view of people with disabilities was presented. The scenario was one of discouragement and hopelessness. Today the phenomena of the disability is viewed differently, as it is used as a means of encouragement for people with disabilities and the non-disabled. Stories of perseverance and confidence flourish, and it is considered healthy to divulge and discuss one's disability. In this respect, people with disabilities, and others, can learn and improve from the disability-experience.

In 1995, in honor of the 50th anniversary of FDR's death, Bob Dole stated the following: He will surely be recalled by many as a master politician; an energetic and inspiring leader during the dark days of the depression; a tough, single-minded Commander-in-Chief during World War II; and a statesman. No doubt about it, he was all these things. But he was also the first elected leader in history with a disability, and he was a `disability hero.'

In 1921, it was quite obvious that Franklin Roosevelt was following the same path that took his cousin Theodore Roosevelt to the White House. His election to the New York State Senate in 1910, and his appointment as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, led him to the Democratic candidacy for Vice President in 1920. Shortly after, on August 10th of that year, he felt ill during a vacation on Campobello Island in New Brunswick, Canada. He had experienced a very strenuous day that consisted of fighting a brush fire, swimming, and playing with the children. He went to bed that night suffering from tremendous discomfort and exhaustion. Three days later he experienced paralysis. In the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt." The next morning when I swung out of bed my left leg lagged. I tried to persuade myself that the trouble with my leg was muscular, that it would disappear as I used it. But presently it refused to work, and then the other.

He had been misdiagnosed by a family physician, who had viewed his symptoms as those of a cold. His condition worsened, and he was subdued by high fevers and excessive physical pain that brought him to near-death. Two weeks, thereafter, his illness was positively diagnosed by a Boston internist as Polio. FDR was determined to succeed, and through his courage, perseverance, and a laborious schedule of physical therapy, he was able to regain some strength. Subsequently, some improvement was evident, and miraculously the muscles of his upper body soon recovered. However, hope soon diminished as the paralysis prevented him from the ability to use his leg muscles. Instantaneously, FDR's career was interrupted. There was little promise for the future, as his life had been changed forever. He had contracted Poliomyelitis (Polio), an acute neural virus. FDR was only one, out of thousands of Americans, who was infected by this epidemic. According to FDR's grandson, Ford Roosevelt: "He and my grandmother were in the prime of their lives with five children and the world open to them. Contracting polio altered the course of his life forever and perhaps the course of the United States and for that matter, the world."

FDR was steadfast in his attempts to walk again, and spent the next seven years in rehabilitation. Unfortunately, his dream of walking never materialized. None-the-less, he did find solace and mobility through the use of a wheelchair. On occasion, his sons or aides would carry him from place to place, and at other times he was known to crawl on the floor.

FDR continued to have political aspirations, yet was convinced that if he did not refine the public misconception that he had the ability to walk, his political ambitions would quickly fade. His austerity paid off, and he was able to cultivate the deception of walking. He managed to stand upright, with his lower body painfully immobilized in steel braces. He barely had the capacity to maneuver his walk by swinging his hips, and leaning on the arm of a family member or aide. He was only able to achieve this for a few feet at a time. Then the intense pain and exhaustion would set in. He mastered this dangerous feat, and was able to convince people that he was not incapacitated. This was his greatest fear; that the public would view him as weak and unable to succeed. He knew that he was now a far better and stronger person. But, how would he assure the world?

There were many people around him who empowered this deception. The press was the most eminent contributor to this falsehood. None of the reporters printed the fact that FDR was unable to walk, and the photographers avoided taking pictures of him in his wheelchair. His public treasured him, and would do nothing to disrupt this embodiment of fabrication that became his facade. The public saw his struggle. They either didn't accept or understand the situation at hand.

In 1928, FDR decided to forge ahead with his political career. "No sob stuff," he told the press in 1928 when he started his return to politics, and no mention of his disability was discussed with his family. While running for President in 1932, he continued to elude his disability, and reporters, photographers and his political opponents continued to downplay his illness. They rarely made it an issue. Political cartoons often depicted him as either standing, leaping and/or running. On March 4th, 1933, as he stood at the East Front of the Capitol to take the oath of the Presidency, he stated the illustrious words that rang forth to the world: "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." He was 35 feet from his wheelchair when he made this statement. Only FDR knew the true measure of these words. He was to be re-elected three times, in 1936, 1940, and 1944. He was the only U.S. President ever elected to four terms. During this time in our history, people with disabilities were rarely working, and certainly not at the highest levels of government.

There were few occasions where FDR fully recognized the extent of his disability in public. One such occasion entailed a visit to a military hospital in Hawaii. As he toured the amputee wards in his wheelchair, he went by each bed allowing the men to see him exactly as he was. These men had a personal understanding of his condition, as they watched him reveal his most personal juncture. These visits to such facilities increased. He became a hero in the eyes of many, as he advocated on behalf of others with disabilities.

During a time when Americans thought that those with disabilities belonged at home or in institutions, FDR advocated an independent life style, and has been called the `father of the modern independent living movement.' FDR saw an independent life style as one that encourages those with disabilities to take control of their own lives.

Upon taking the advice of a friend, in October, 1924, FDR visited a resort in Warm Springs, Georgia, to try hydrotherapy in naturally-heated mineral springs. Within several months he was feeling much healthier. In 1926, he purchased a run-down resort in Warm Springs. Over a period of 20 years, he was able to transform it into an unprecedented and superior rehabilitation center. The philosophy of the center focused on psychological and medical recovery. There was a tremendous emphasis on the psychological, as research began to indicate that it was now considered to be as significant as the physical component. Thus, he became the founder of the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation, which proved to be a tremendous success.

Throughout most of his life FDR had limited contact with average Americans. Yet, at Warm Springs, he worked with the center's handicapped clients. Their backgrounds reflected the rich and poor of the nation. He saw many of them through their therapy, and oversaw the continued success and direction of the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation.

Initially, FDR did not completely accept his disability. It presented limitations that he did not want manifested. His ingenuous attitude resulted from the fact that he was very concerned about how people viewed him. His efforts entailed extraordinary measures in order to prevent the country and the press from seeing him in a wheelchair or on a stretcher. His ability to regain strength in his arms contributed to his unrealistic approach to his personal disability. In addition, he received `false' certainty from his physician that he would achieve full recovery. According to Friedel, part of the reason FDR was able to have any success in his fight against his disability was because of his mental fortitude. He was most fortunate to have an incredibly supportive family. They persuaded and encouraged him to use his cerebral abilities. He was often reminded that the damage was only to his legs; not his brain.

The family proved to be right. Thereafter, many perceived that Roosevelt's ability to think was sharper than ever before in his life (Johnson, 1967). According to Cronkite & Moos, life stressors can cause depression. However, many are resilient in the face of adversity. New coping skills and self-confidence may surface, and closer relationships and a richer appreciation of life are often outcomes. Life stressors are viewed by many people who are disabled (approximately 50%) as a positive influence on their lives.

FDR now championed the cause of those with disabilities, and became the founder the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (1938), known today as the "March of Dimes." He raised millions of dollars to find a cure. The March of Dimes announced the first successful polio vaccine, engineered by Dr. Jonas Salk, on April 12th, 1955. This date was the 10th anniversary of FDR's death. His efforts were a success. Polio is virtually extinct in the United States, today.

Understanding disability, since the days of President Roosevelt, reflects that we, as a nation, recognize that it has evolved as a natural part of our lives. The United States is in the forefront when it comes to building a world that is accessible to those with disabilities. Attitudes have changed. Fifty years ago, President Franklin Roosevelt could not walk. He believed it was necessary to disguise that fact from the American people. Today, Americans would probably have no problem electing a male or female President with a disability.

During this same time frame, segregation of people with disabilities was enforced by ordinances known as "ugly laws." Chicago and other cities prohibited "any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object or improper person to be allowed in or on the public ways or other public places in this city from exposing "himself to public view." How could such a law exist? Was it any wonder that FDR was fearful that people wouldn't understand the meaning of disability as long as such laws were intertwined in this nation's legal fabric?

FDR's grandson recalls that in the 1920s and 30's there was prejudice against people with disabilities. FDR mastered his ability to disguise his handicap. Although he appeared physically fit, and would stand erect when giving a speech, he did wear heavy leg braces and supported himself on whatever was around him. The use of a wheelchair provided him with the mobility he needed. Alternatively, his long, heavy leg braces were cumbersome, as he balanced himself with a cane while leaning on an assisting arm. The assisting `arm' was often that of his son Elliot. FDR often had to be brought to a standing position. He would then be lifted in and out of cars or up and down stairways.

FDR's massive amount of travel required that every detail was considered to assure that things were accessible. The construction of ramps from the street to the building entrances allowed his wheelchair the mobility he needed when he was out of sight from the public. His reasons for hiding his disability stemmed from his personal view of the times. FDR felt that the public wanted to see a leader who portrayed the conviction and courage needed to provide forcefulness to a country contending with the chaos brought by the Depression and World War II.

In certain instances, FDR was known to be quite content in allowing his disability to be recognized. He felt at home with his appearances before wounded soldiers at Warm Springs, Georgia, and at Howard University in Washington, DC. He also appeared to be quite comfortable with his disability when he appeared seated before Congress to report on the Yalta Conference. It is obvious that circumstances dictated whether or not FDR felt comfortable exposing or hiding his disability.

America recently dedicated a memorial to President Franklin D. Roosevelt on May 2, 1997. FDR was not shown in his wheelchair, which created a great controversy throughout the country and the world. The disability was hidden. The man who had led the United States out of the Great Depression, commanded our forces to victory in World War II, and was the founder of the United Nations had achieved all of these dynamic and miraculous feats from a wheelchair. Why not display this significant instrument?

Many feel that this celebration of FDR's life should be a testimony to the challenges he surmounted, and the hope that he provided for the many who suffered as he did. There is a certain fascination with the life and times of FDR. He continues to act as a paragon of strength for every American, with or without a disability. He portrays courage, strength and determination.

Many feel that the issue of the memorial cloaking his disability is tantamount to removing what he best represents; the courage, fortitude and sensitivity that he worked for to unite a country in turmoil. He was a maverick for those with disabilities, and we are only beginning to understand his initially apprehensive approach to the delicate subject of his disability. On July 24, 1997, The U.S. Congress passed an act that calls for a representation of FDR that demonstrates his disability. The FDR in a Wheelchair Campaign played an integral role in attaining this success. It wanted to show how FDR's adjustment to life with his disability enabled him to be a better man and president.

FDR's disability transitioned his relationship with his family and associates. He was now perceived differently by others. His new social awareness changed his overall philosophy. He found a comfortable niche with the Congress and the press. His new awareness impacted his dealings with dynamic and powerful world leaders, such as Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. This enlightenment created an interchangeable relationship between FDR and his disability. They were now `one and the same.' FDR began to meet people he would never have met in his previous social circles. He was now able to relate to poor farmers and African-American sharecroppers. Sympathy turned to empathy, as he began to recognize and fully appreciate the problems that challenged those with disabilities. He was prompted in a way that positively affected his legislative goals, as the New Deal programs brought food, jobs, housing, and motivation to a country devastated by the Great Depression.

An individual's ability to adapt to his or her disability and social surroundings, has a lot to do with perceived discrimination and social bias. Historically, people with disabilities have accepted the realization that they were a minority group. They have experienced discrimination, as it is often practiced against African-Americans and women. According to Altman, `the enactment of laws regarding the handicapped in the 70's was thought to have indicated a change of attitude toward the disabled by the non-disabled. However, the disabled continue to be viewed based on stereotypes.' Social and political movements have been responsible for the passage of major legislation in 1973 and 1975, which dealt with rehabilitation and education for handicapped children. Hahn states that many people with disabilities view prejudice and discrimination as their primary problems; not the inability to function as other people.

According to experts, those with disabilities are viewed as different. Discrimination creates alienation. Unfortunately, people with disabilities often see relevance to other's attitudes. This relevance effects relationships with their peers, spouses and other family members. Relationships can sustain or deprive one's ability to address stress and anger. Doctors, social workers, teachers, employers and counselors are integral in the perception process concerning life alternatives.

Relationships with the general public occur on a day to day basis and can often create major problems for the non-typical child; more so than their individual disabilities. According to Altman, this becomes a larger problem when individuals with negative or discriminating attitudes are in positions that can have a limiting effect on those with disabilities, e.g., health professionals, teachers, administrators, managers, banking personnel, law enforcement and employment personnel. Hahn states that there is a wide-spread perception people with disabilities violate important cultural norms and values, and that this is the basis for much of the prejudice from those without disabilities. This perception isolates those with disabilities away from what is considered to be the normal population. Those in wheelchairs are often overwhelmed by the humiliation of being considered a non-person. Roessler & Bolton note that the disabled and non-disabled person faced with failure may react with depression, and loss of hope can cause reactions such as withdrawal, sadness, and a lack of interest in recovery or events around the individual. It's difficult to believe that as we head into a new millennium, social stigmas continue to affect people with disabilities.

President Clinton spoke of FDR at a recent press conference, when asked about a person who significantly influenced his life: . `Finally, I think Roosevelt was an example to Americans of the importance of not giving up, and of the dignity inherent in every person. And when Franklin Roosevelt was first elected, Oliver Wendell Holmes was still in the Supreme Court, he was 92 years old. And President Roosevelt was taken to see Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was still reading Plato in his 90s and all that. Holmes was a pretty acerbic fellow when he said, after meeting Roosevelt, that he thought he might not have had a first-class mind, but he certainly had a first-class temperament. And he did. He understood that reality is more than the facts before you; it's also how you feel about them, how you react to them, what your attitude is. That "the only thing we have to fear was fear itself" was much more than just a slogan to him. He had lived it before he asked the American people to live it. So for all those reasons, if I had to pick one person, I would pick him."

In a ceremony at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, on, December 17, 1999, President Clinton signed into law the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act of 1999. This legislation now allows millions of Americans with disabilities to work without fear of losing Medicaid and Medicare coverage. The American economy, since Clinton took office, has brought 20 million new jobs to the economy. For the first time in 29 years, unemployment is at a low of 4.1 percent. The unemployment rate among working-age adults with severe disabilities remains at 75-five percent. Individuals with disabilities are too often obstructed by conventional obstacles that severely restrict their opportunities to work. People with disabilities, under previous laws, often became ineligible for Medicaid or Medicare when they were able to locate employment. Their employment situation placed them in the insecure position of having to choose between health care coverage and the opportunity to work.

Subsequently, The Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act of 1999, will help to eliminate this barrier. There is now an opportunity to identify the multitude of talented, resources with disabilities who are ready, willing, and able to work. President Clinton considers this Act to be one of his greatest accomplishments since taking office.

Paul K. Longmore, in his article "Living With A Disability," notes some of the myths attached to those with disabilities. He addresses how the population sees people with disabilities in terms of their disabilities. People with disabilities are viewed collectively, rather than on an individual basis. Longmore notes that `humanizing nouns' accentuate the individual. Using words such as abnormal, presents a grim view of those with disabilities. It creates a picture of the person as being less than others. Other terms, such as afflicted with, stricken with, or suffers from, conveys weakness and defeat, and does not take into consideration the strengths that the person has developed as a result of his or her disability. In addition, when stating that someone is `confined to a wheelchair,' one is creating a false impression. According to Longmore, wheelchairs liberate, not confine or bind; they are mobility tools from which people transfer to sleep, sit in chairs, drive cars, etc.. Handel was epileptic; Renoir was arthritic; such usage of language sees people as their disabilities, and is, therefore, an inaccurate reference; a person is not a condition.

Interpretations, such as the one's noted by Longmore, drain the humanity from people with disabilities. We often speak of children with multiple or severe disabilities. They are referred to as "special." Many feel that such a term creates distancing and is inappropriate. The word creates a difference. Other terms that create a similar guise are: physically challenged, handi-capable, inconvenienced, and differently-abled. The terms are euphemisms that create a negative blanket of isolation for those with disabilities. Another misconception noted by Longmore is the fact that people having physical, sensory, or mental disabilities that are often seen as being courageous, yet it should be noted that those with disabilities are not collectively courageous. Each individual must be acknowledged for his or her individual abilities.

According to Siebens, it has been estimated that 14% of the non-institutionalized population consists of people with disabilities, and that the numbers appear to be increasing. Smith, in 1994, noted that the number of Polio survivors in the United States was estimated at 650,000 and according to population statistics, approximately nine per cent to 17 per cent of those between the ages of 16 and 64 in the United States report disabilities that may affect their employment. Meyerson reported, in 1988, that there were 36 million people in the United States with disabilities;(all types: mental, physical, developmental). He states that if one wants to try to understand this figure, it should be considered that this is the largest minority in the United States. He shows a comparison, stating that African-Americans make up about 26 to 27 million, and the Hispanics make up approximately about 17 million.

Fine & Adrienne note that each disability has its own problems with stigma and discrimination, and that the terms disabled and handicapped are frequently misused. In addition, attitudes and reactions can also be learned from medical professionals who create self-fulfilling prophecies. Vargo & Stewin (1984), note various stages that people with disabilities go through, as he or she broaches the road to acceptance. Anxiety and fear are stages experienced by many people with disabilities. Fear, denial, anger, and depression often follow the injury. A final phase is considered to be mourning, as one mourns for something lost; i.e., , hopes, aspirations or goals. Accommodation includes compromise and reconstruction, where the individual with a disability, once again, becomes an active part of the family and not the focus. Assimilation is the total reintegration of the member into the family structure. The process may be best viewed as a treatment model and not a stage model. Vargo and Stewin recommend that rehabilitation counselors who work with people with disabilities, should place less emphasis on labeling behavior and categorization, and provide greater sensitivity to the individuals receiving treatment.



More stories from FDR issue:

Blindness sees no barrier


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