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Remembering Franklin Roosevelt's Wheelchair

By Sara Polak 

On his dedication of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial in Washington DC in 1997, President Bill Clinton said about FDR:

“It was that faith in his own extraordinary potential that enabled him to guide his country from a wheelchair. And from that wheelchair and a few halting steps, leaning on his son's arms or those of trusted aides, he lifted a great people back to their feet and set America to march again toward its destiny.”

The idea that Franklin Roosevelt’s disability played a key role in his ability to “guide his country” and “lift a great people back to their feet” continues to resonate in Roosevelt's memory. However, the memorial that Clinton dedicated on this occasion did not show FDR in a wheelchair; members of the Roosevelt family and others had argued that FDR would not have wished to be represented as such.

This is no doubt true. Between 1921 and 1945, FDR passed as able-bodied – an act of image-making that, next to himself, involved staff members, journalists, and the general public. Roosevelt had a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ with the press that they would not photograph him in his wheelchair, and photographers monitored each other to honor that agreement. Most people knew that Roosevelt had had polio, but the fact that they could often see him standing or walking – if only short distances, and always with assistance – helped create the suggestion that he had recovered.

Nowadays, though, the fact that FDR used a wheelchair is one of the best-known trivia about him. When, in a movie about World War II, a man in a wheelchair enters the scene, most viewers intuit immediately that this must be the president of the United States. But this is hardly something that is remembered: during his presidency, few people were aware of it. The wheelchair rolled into the public view long after Roosevelt had died, during the 1970s and 80s, with the rise of the disability rights movement.

Nevertheless, Roosevelt did obliquely but regularly refer to it. He suggested the nation’s ‘affliction’ during the Depression was something to be ‘overcome,’ in the same way as disability was – and is – often framed as a condition the ‘sufferer’ must ‘overcome’. In his First Inaugural Address Roosevelt forged an implicit link between his own body and the national ‘paralysis’ that he presented himself as perfectly positioned to “convert into advance”:

“This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

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The myth that Roosevelt, because he had ‘overcome’ disability, was uniquely able to ‘heal’ the United States, stuck. But it is a myth. Being disabled may or may not have strengthened FDR’s presidency – there is no way of knowing. However, the notion that disability made him a resilient embodiment of a nation that would eventually rise up from despair to free the world, supports a feel-good narrative that has been embraced widely. The disability rights activists that brought Roosevelt’s wheelchair into public view, in part by demanding that a sculpture of FDR in his wheelchair be added to the Roosevelt Memorial, used the slogan: “Don’t hide FDR’s source of strength”. And Clinton too, in dedicating the added sculpture in 2001, said: “By showing President Roosevelt as he was, we show the world that we have faith that in America you are measured for what you are and what you have achieved, not for what you have lost.”

In this narrative, Roosevelt’s disability was an asset to the United States, which was able to profit from that asset, because of its willingness to see the wheelchair as part of the broader capacity to “measure [people] for what [they] are”. Clearly, FDR at the time did not believe he could openly present himself as disabled. And certainly, in the early days of his visibility on the national stage, he was able to keep it out of view because of the many privileges he enjoyed as a wealthy white man.
 
Still, Joe Biden embraced the same rhetorical move, when campaigning in Warm Springs, Georgia in 2020 – where Roosevelt often used the therapeutic baths hoping to strengthen his leg muscles: “This place, Warm Springs, is a reminder that though broken, each of us can be healed.” The dramatic conversion narrative that this harmonizes with is Amazing Grace: “I once was lost, but now I’m found / Was blind, but now I see”. The implication is that the quality of the seeing is exceptional because of the initial blindness. FDR’s disability as a construct in American memory, symbolized and driven into view by his wheelchair, is a device that bears up a profoundly self-congratulatory but eventually ableist national narrative of ‘overcoming’ disability.

Sources:

Sara Polak is an assistant professor of American studies at Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society. She is the coeditor of Violence and Trolling on Social Media: History, Affect, and Effects of Online Vitriol and Embodying Contagion: The Viropolitics of Horror and Desire in Contemporary Discourse. She is the author of FDR in American Memory.

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