ragged edge magazine online



Issue 2



head of statue of FDR

Imaging FDR: Separate Still

By Rosemarie Garland Thomson

A new "room" at the entrance to the FDR Memorial now contains a simple, life-size bronze statue depicting Roosevelt seated in his wheelchair, wearing his trademark rumpled suit, pince-nez, and fedora.

It differs from the regal, robed, larger-than-life figure represented in the third room, where the ample cloak erases and denies the mark of his disability.

But the story the new room tells is still fraught with contradiction.

Why we can't talk about the real FDR
A group of us from the field of disability studies had been invited to recommend potential quotations from which the designers were to choose an inscription.

We had a story about disability that we wanted the new room to tell. We sought a quotation as crisp, powerful, and unambiguous as the bold "I hate war" chiseled into the wall above the tumbled stones that suggest the blasted buildings of World War II.

FDR's strategy in the Depression had been to alter the environment to meet the needs of the people. That was parallel, we reasoned, to the idea that people with disabilities need a material situation that accommodates the differences of their bodies or minds.

We wanted to tell the story of a determined man who used a wheelchair, and whose use of it influenced the world around him. We saw FDR as someone whose disability shaped him and who, in turn, shaped his own world and the world that has come after. We looked for a quotation telling that story about disability

We wanted a quotation suggesting that the experience of disability can enrich a life, foster leadership, and create a sense of community. In keeping with the human scale of the statue, we searched for words hinting that FDR's disability made him an accessible -- rather than a lofty -- hero.

The quotation, we felt, should avoid the stereotypical narrative that disability is a tragic experience to be overcome. Discrimination, more than impairment, is what people with disabilities have to surmount.

After reviewing more than 100 possibilities, we eventually offered a unanimous recommendation to the designers: "We know that equality of individual ability has never existed and never will, but we do insist that equality of opportunity still must be sought." Combined with the image of a U.S. president using a wheelchair, those words sent the unequivocal message that disability is an issue of equal opportunity.

To our dismay, however, the designers and the other people advising them selected an inscription for the new room of the FDR memorial that has exactly the effect we'd hoped to avoid -- a quotation from Eleanor Roosevelt: "Franklin's illness gave him strength and courage he had not had before. He had to think out the fundamentals of living and learn the greatest of all lessons -- infinite patience and never-ending persistence."

Alone, Eleanor Roosevelt's words undermine disability-rights goals. First, FDR should speak for himself. And to have the first two words a visitor encounters at the memorial be "Franklin's illness" presents disability in a way that doubly violates the spirit of equality.

"Franklin's illness" personalizes rather than politicizes disability. It tells the stereotypical, apolitical story of disability as an individual catastrophe, psychological adjustment, and moral chastening: Impairment is a private problem that an individual must overcome, not a public problem of environmental and attitudinal barriers.

In our debate with the designers, they asserted that their quotation would make FDR "very personal, very accessible." But they confused their intent to humanize FDR with personalizing his disability. The inscription encourages visitors to respond with sympathy, admiration, and charity rather than with support for equal access and integration.

The story of "Franklin's illness" as well as of his "strength," "courage," "patience," and "persistence" would create an aesthetically differentiated and inspirational space, the designers argued. The new room was to be a "prologue." In reality, that suggests separating the personal story of disability from the political content of the memorial's other rooms.

The quotation they chose clings to the stubborn stereotypes of disability that still feel comfortable to many Americans, simply because those ideas are so easily recognizable -- a wheelchair-using FDR, spoken about by others, segregated within his own memorial.

Rosemarie Garland Thomson is an associate professor of English at Howard University and the author of Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Difference in American Culture and Literature. A longer version of this article appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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