Few, if any, presidents were as beloved as Franklin Roosevelt.
Roosevelt came to office at a very volatile time in our nation’s history. He is credited with lifting our country out of the Great Depression, as well as rallying the country to defeat a murderous despot.
Roosevelt succeeded largely because of his intellect, his determination and his boundless charisma. Families would crowd around the radio during his “fireside chats” and were comforted and encouraged by what he said.
But few knew the lengths he went to conceal the fact that he could not walk. He had contracted polio at age 39 and his legs were virtually useless. In reality, he struggled to get in and out of cars, often used a wheelchair and even resorted to being carried or crawling on the floor when necessary.
The press did not photograph him during the times he was struggling to move. This was apparently never a stated policy; photographers just put their cameras down during those moments.
But a rare video has just been released that actually shows Roosevelt walking. How did this video come about? It was not taken by the press but by a tourist, who was unaware of this practice and who just kept his camera rolling.
In viewing this video, one is struck by how effective Roosevelt was in hiding his disability. He had undergone years of physical therapy and body building, and had developed the strength to swing his legs forward with his upper body strength. You also can see in the video that he supported himself by holding onto his bodyguard with one arm and a cane in the other. When he reached the podium, he clung to it and his bodyguard discretely left.
When one understands this about Roosevelt, he is even more inspiring. But it’s impossible not to wonder what he also might have accomplished if he didn’t (justifiably) feel the need to put so much time and energy into disguising his disability. And it’s fascinating to ponder if he would handle things the same way today.
Because Franklin D. Roosevelt had contracted polio, he was unable to use his legs. But he was counseled to hide this fact as much as possible, to keep him from appearing “weak.”
In the book, “Roosevelt’s Splendid Deception,” Hugh Gallagher chronicles the extraordinary lengths that Roosevelt took to hide his disability from the world. He believed that this would cause him to be perceived as “weak” in his ability to lead the country through very troubling times. Therefore, he asked the press not to photograph him in a wheelchair. And for the most part, the press complied.
Mr. Roosevelt also did other things to hide the fact that he was a wheelchair user. Although he had virtually no strength from the waist down, he built up his upper body and arm muscles so that he could literally hold himself up from whatever podium he was speaking from, disguising the fact that his legs were effectively useless. And in getting to the podium, he would enlist the help of someone (often his son) to walk with him. Grasping his escort’s arm, he would use that leverage and his upper body strength to propel his legs forward – one at a time – until he could reach the podium.
Was this the best way to handle his disability? It is hard to say – those were different times in a different world. But there are some myths and stereotypes that seem to have stubbornly persisted through the years – chief among them that people with disabilities are not quite “complete” and should not be treated as if they are. Perhaps that is why a doctor who is a wheelchair user recently wrote in the New York Times that her competence has often come into question – both from patients and colleagues. She also suggests that much of this anxiety might be mitigated if there were more physicians with disabilities on the scene.
As those with disabilities know, a common reaction to us is discomfort and anxiety. That can turn into fear, because people are reminded that at any time, they could join the ranks of the disabled population. And although Roosevelt did not mention his disability during his inauguration, surely he spoke from experience when he said, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Note: The photographs below reflect a change in attitude that Roosevelt would have been very happy to see: The first one represents a perpetuation of the “splendid deception,” portraying him as standing tall and proud. Largely because of pressure brought by disability advocates, a new statue was added in the late 90’s. This one shows him as he really was – every bit as proud and presidential.
For more information about these statue changes, see the article below: