FDR: Rolling in his grave?
wheelchair says more about disability
pride than about Roosevelt.
As in the 1930s and 1940s, Roosevelt's wheelchairs will be discreetly out of sight. They'll be there, of course -- in photos; even a replica in a display; but they won't be drawing attention to themselves.
"Hiding FDR's disability is an affront to every American with and without a disability," said Jim Dickson earlier this year. Dickson spearheaded the National Organization on Disability's push to get the Commission to install a statue of FDR in his wheelchair. Demonstrations, letter-writing efforts and press conferences by D.C. crips got the controversy some national attention.
But the message going out, say some, is the wrong one.
"Don't hide FDR's source of strength," said the placards carried by protesters gathered at the site of the 7 1/2-acre Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial in West Potomac Park, MD in yet another protest late last winter. "The source of his courage was in fact his disability," Gallaudet University President I. King Jordan told reporters at a press conference.
"When you have people chanting, 'don't hide his source of strength,' what is that saying?" asks writer Kathi Wolfe, who's blind and who frequently covers disability issues. ""It's retro pity or something. It plays right into all the old stereotypes."
"The effort to get the wheelchair into the equation is great. But did they really think through that 'courage' and 'strength' stuff? I don't think so," said Washington, D.C. activist who requested anonymity.
"I thought the movement said, 'don't make people heroes or victims based on their disability'; I thought the movement always said 'don't define people by their disabilities.' This protest is doing exactly that."
"I have a disdain for people who use illness to explain their lives," says filmmaker Galt Niederhoffer, who has temporal lobe epilepsy.
The public doesn't even know this Roosevelt stuff is about pride," says Joe Meecham. "It's just the same old stuff. Actually there is a lot to say about Roosevelt, about him 'passing' -- but nobody's said it; that hasn't gotten any press at all." He added that he "couldn't see that NOD had made any effort" to make these more substantive points.
A year ago, following NOD publicity, a number of national columnists hopped onto the FDR-in-a-chair bandwagon, with the old chestnuts about courage and inspiration.
"For FDR, concealing his disability was an expression of courage. For the custodians of his memory, concealing his disability is a lack of courage," wrote columnist Maureen Dowd in the New York Times.
"He probably would not have become president without passing through the furnace of polio," wrote George Will in the Washington Post.
"Omission of FDR's handicap is a crime against his spirit," insisted Time Magazine's Hugh Sidey.
These remarks are admiringly quoted in Dickson's materials as signs that reporters understand the disability-pride message NOD has been trying to promote.
What NOD has done is not unusual for disability groups, though, says Meecham. He says groups usually don't think through what the message sounds like -- "how it's being heard in a society who still doesn't even 'get' disability rights -- much less 'disability pride.' "
Meecham insists that the NOD battle "is really about disability pride, when you get right down to it. We're at a point where we want a national hero, and Roosevelt is being fit to the task, whether he should be or not."
Beneath the surface there's some grousing that might be plain ol' jealousy. Folks claim NOD has jumped on this bandwagon as a cheap way to get some national attention -- finding an issue that got a good kneejerk reaction from the media and milking it for all it's worth. But it's hard to fault any gimp group not in the cure/telethon/help 'em camp for being canny enough to try to glom onto 15 minutes of fame when such an easy target as an official Commission that hates talking about Roosevelt's disability presents itself.
The controversy among crips is this: Is it great that NOD is calling Roosevelt a hero for crips, and using him as what one person called a "'culture icon"? Or is it misplaced praise for a man who really went to great efforts to pass as non-disabled?
"It is important to Americans with disabilities -- and important as a symbol of how American society perceives its disabled people --that the Memorial depict the man as he was: tall, strong, heroic and disabled. Don't let them steal our hero!" Hugh Gallagher, author of FDR's Splendid Deception, has said. He has been liberally quoted by supporters of the NOD campaign.
Wolfe worries that the effort to turn Roosevelt into "a crip icon just because he was a crip" contradicts history. "He wasn't a disability hero," she insists. He wasn't "a crip advocate like Helen Keller, who worked to better conditions for blind and deaf-blind people and veterans who had disabilities -- as well as being a feminist and against racism."
Wolfe stresses that she isn't against the idea of a statue of Roosevelt in a wheelchair and would welcome it. And she does consider Roosevelt a hero, she said -- not because he was disabled, but because of his national and world leadership.
Others point out that Roosevelt made few if any disability rights efforts, and more than one person we talked to pointed out Roosevelt's seemingly total lack of interest in accessibility of Washington, D.C. "Either he didn't notice it because he had help, or he didn't care," said one.
Calling Roosevelt a "crip hero" is a "convenient re-writing of history," said one activist who didn't want to be named, adding that she suspected the mindset of the Roosevelt Commission was pretty close to that of FDR himself. Dickson insists that were Roosevelt alive today, he "would be comfortable, perhaps eager, in light of current increased understanding of disability issues, to share awareness of his disability with others."
That's a sentiment shared by Cass Irvin, who has long considered Roosevelt a personal hero. "Roosevelt knew that society wouldn't believe he could do the job of president unless he appeared to be 'whole' -- society's word, not ours." She believes that he can -- and should -- serve as a symbol for our movement.
"Roosevelt needed help getting into bed; he was a severely disabled person," Irvin said. "The fact that he was president, that he was rich, the fact that he had power -- none of this made any difference. When people talk about FDR having 'overcome' his disability, they don't know this FDR. There were some things even he could not overcome.
"Roosevelt worked hard to hide things like not being able to get up and down without help," Irvin continued. "He knew people would think him incapable of leading the country. He knew that perception was incorrect -- but it would be there anyway."
Wolfe says she too understands why Roosevelt hid his disability. "If you were gay in the Fifties, I could understand why you'd be closeted, too." But whether he hid it or not, she still feels that having polio did not make him a hero. Nor was his response to life "dependent on his polio alone," insists Wolfe. "I don't think that the great things he did while president was because of the polio."
Yet Dickson, in press statements, writes, "FDR led the nation through the Great Depression, to victory in World War II and he did so from wheelchair. ... FDR developed his strength of character, determination and discipline most distinctly as a result of having polio."
-- Reported by Mary Johnson.
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