by Cass Irvin
One night, FDR's son John returned to the White House late and noticed that his father's light was still on. Going into the presidential bedroom, he found Roosevelt in his chair. The president had run repeatedly for his valet for help to go to bed. [The valet], who liked his drink, had had too much, fallen asleep, and had not responded to the bell. FDR was stranded, unable to care for himself ... " Historian Hugh Gallagher, in the book FDR's Splendid Deception.
The first time I read this passage in Hugh Gallagher's book, I felt a great deal of humiliation for President Roosevelt. The same thing had happened to me, too: I'd been left sitting up, just like that. It was one of those things you could expect to happen if you needed personal assistance.
For it to happen to me had always seemed OK-- just one of those things. But when I read this, I felt indignant -- for him: How could anyone treat this man this way? He was, after all, President of the United States.
But it happens. It happened then, it happens now. It happens whenever anyone with disabilities -- Franklin Delano Roosevelt included -- has to depend on others. We are people who need personal assistance to live our lives.
The big difference between Roosevelt and most of the rest of us disabled people is that he had the resources, financial and human, to have the assistance he needed.
And he was used to personal assistance -- even before he became disabled. He came from a wealthy, aristocratic family; they had people around them to take care of things: the house, the meals, the lawn, the laundry.
Reading about Roosevelt's personal assistance problem like this gave me a feeling of kinship with a person I'd idolized since childhood. Strange to think that he also had attendant problems!
Ironically, I first read Gallagher's book at a friend's house, where I'd gone to stay for the weekend so my personal attendant could have the weekend off. I was feeling a bit depressed because I didn't have a lot of resources and needed my friends to help me out from time to time. At the time, our state's personal attendant program didn't give us enough money to hire an extra attendant if we wanted to give our regular one time off.
Perhaps reading about Roosevelt should have made me feel better, knowing that someone as great as a president had also had attendant problems. Instead I found myself feeling embarrassed for him. What if the public had seen him like that? That was what he worked to hide.
He, more than anyone, knew that needing personal assistance didn't mean you were inherently dependent. But he also knew what people thought it meant.
Everybody needs assistance. We have personal assistance from the time we're' born until the day we die. Personal assistance comes from moms, from teachers, from housewives and husbands.
Everybody uses personal assistants. They are maids, waiters in restaurants, gas station attendants, flight attendants, beauticians. They are drivers at $5 an hour or chauffeurs at $75 an hour. They are people who type your reports, file your papers, prepare coffee for your business meetings. The only difference between the person who fixes coffee for the meeting and my attendant fixing coffee for my friends is society's perception.
WHAT DO YOU THINK of what you've just read? Send us an email.