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Issue 2
2001

 

 

photo of Roosevelt with cane

Why People Can't Talk About the Real FDR

By Cass Irvin

 

It's hard for people, even today, to hold in their minds the contradictory thought that a person is powerful and valuable to society and, at the same time, the person is "helpless" and dependent on others -- as some who were opposed to the new FDR statue think the wheelchair signifies.


The Statue--Separate still
President Roosevelt "could not be President unless he could walk; therefore, he would walk," writes historian Geoffrey Ward in his Roosevelt biography A First-Class Temperament. Ward writes that Roosevelt "knew that he would have to discover a way to seem to walk" to relieve the anxiety of his supporters. If he couldn't do it he had no future as the leader he wanted to be.

I believe Roosevelt thought, "If that's what it will take to convince you I'm capable, then I'll do it." He walked -- and he got the jobs he wanted: Governor of New York, President of the United States!

You couldn't be around Roosevelt for long before it became obvious that he still had a disability. People who wrote about meeting FDR mentioned it routinely. I was particularly affected by Katharine Hepburn's version: "I received an invitation to tea with President Roosevelt," she wrote in her autobiography, Me. "I was told that President Roosevelt would be in in a minute. He came in. I couldn't tell you for the life of me if he was or was not in wheelchair. I think that he was on crutches and had an aide with him -- who left the minute we were settled. No matter. There he was. That powerful and fascinating personality."

 

To me the bigger issue is about how he appeared to walk. No one talks about that. He walked with personal assistance. Or as Katharine Hepburn put it, "an aide." He had the resources -- the people -- to help him walk, and he became acceptable to society -- all because of personal assistance. Most disabled people do not have Roosevelt's resources, his number of personal assistants, so we are not accepted by society.

We have to convince the world that, when you have the proper resources, being disabled is not the worst-case scenario everyone thinks it is. I am not sure how to get this understanding across. FDR wasn't either, it seems; it forced the greatest leader of the 20th century into doing doing the disability equivalent of "passing" -- doing whatever it took to appear nondisabled.

To society, we people with disabilities are not acceptable as we are. To be acceptable, we must get well, be cured, be "whole" again, become normal. Society makes too much of cure. It says disabled people are not OK as we are. And many of us believe that.

But FDR didn't believe that. He knew he was capable before polio, and he was no different after polio: he just couldn't walk.

I believe that for Roosevelt "cure" meant "a solution to a problem." The problem, as he perceived it, was being seen as a "cripple," that is, unable to walk. He knew that in society's eyes this branded him as incapable. It was to get rid of that stigma of being seen as incapable that Roosevelt appeared to walk. To be "cured," for Roosevelt, meant being on his feet.

To accomplish this he used leg braces and the help of his strong sons, and he developed a "walking" technique that gave the appearance of walking. And people believed that he walked. For Roosevelt, that was all that mattered. That was the cure; it solved his problem. He called himself a "cured cripple" -- and people accepted him at his word.

Faux walking is "passing" -- and passing is not good. That's why some people don't believe Roosevelt should be seen as a disability hero. Disability historian Paul Longmore has said that Roosevelt, in effect, "struck a bargain with society: He hid his disability so it did not discomfort or cause problems, and society, in return, said "We'll accept you."

By agreeing to that "bargain," by not making his disability a problem for others, Roosevelt helped create a mystique of disability that we have a hard time overcoming even today.

Cass Irvin is Director of Access to the Arts, Inc. She is currently working on a memoir.

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