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FDR... Did he really have a disability?


His birth, 132 years ago, is celebrated today as we look back to a very controversial part of his life and legacy.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was our 32nd president (1933-1945); the American people elected him an historic four times to that office. He is a well-known figure and many major events occurred during his presidency. He graduated from Harvard and from Columbia Law School. He served as the Governor of New York State and had several other political roles prior to the presidency. His terms were marked with major events in the United States – the Great Depression and World War II being the most memorable. He is hailed as one of the three greatest US Presidents (Washington and Lincoln are the other two).

Whether or not you agreed with his political stance, you cannot disagree that he was one of the most influential Americans of the first half of the twentieth century.

In 1921, FDR contracted a disease resulting in paralysis of his legs. It is believed that he either had contracted poliomyelitis or Guillain-Barre syndrome. However, the diagnosis is irrelevant, the result was that the disease had impacted his ability to stand, walk, climb stairs, and drive automobiles.

He then went on to be elected Governor of New York in 1928 and 1930 (each were two year terms) and the President of the United States in 1932, 1936, 1940 and 1944. If you are interested in more about his life and politics, check out this resource, or these resources.

In the 1990’s, one of the greatest debates related to FDR ensued – whether or not he should be depicted as a wheelchair user in his memorial (dedicated in 1997). Roosevelt spent his life after acquiring paralysis, hiding his usage of a mobility aids, ensuring the public did not see them. He believed that the average American would not consider him a strong political candidate/leader if they knew of his dependence on the aids.

Modern historians can clearly define that his ability to be independently mobile had no bearing on his work and successes in leading the most populous state (at the time) and then as leader of the free world. However the fact remains that from 1921-1945, FDR managed to hide his impairments.

Anyone aware of the term “disability” (as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act) would objectively say that he fits within the definition. However, if you were to ask average Americans “have any US presidents had disabilities?” the response would be “no”. In the US, and in most (if not all) parts of the world, we do not tie the meaning of the word “disability” to success or leadership.

Our perception of a person with a disability is that they are helpless, unsuccessful and unemployed; that they are lesser than any people who do not have disabilities which probably comes from the word it self “DISablilty”, it says it right there, no ability! As we continue the discussion of inclusion, especially as it relates to people with disabilities, we need to consider our bias about what “people with disabilities” means and the assumptions we make about that term. I have provided “disability awareness” to thousands of people. The audience learns about the definition of disability and consistently comments “I didn’t know (fill in the blank) was a disability!” about one quarter of the audience comments “I have (fill in the blank)”, or “my sister has (fill in the blank)”.

It turns out disability is more about perception in the American public than anything else. Of all minority groups, we are the ones that people continually question our membership. Very rarely do you refer to a colleague, family member (or celebrity) as a woman (or man) and then have anyone question that label. But more often than not, if a disability becomes known, one of the common responses is “Really, are you sure?” or “But they (you) don’t look disabled” is accepted in our society and discussed.

After helping Walgreens create an inclusive workforce in the logistics and retail divisions, I heard an amusing story. One of the employees, who was hired specifically through the channel to hire people with significant disabilities, was informed that he would need to go into the employee database and self-identify as a person with a disability. The employee’s response was “I don’t have a disability, I am working”. Disability can have definitions, but perspective still seems to reign.

In 2001, after much controversy that FDR’s memorial never depicted him in a wheelchair, the National Organization on Disability raised funds and had a statue of FDR commissioned and placed near the entrance. This statue depicts the president in a wheelchair, similar to the one he used. A stands as a symbol of the importance of an inclusive society where disabilities no longer need to be hidden in order to be perceived as capable.

So I am asking you – Did FDR have a disability?

This week, we will be launching our new on-line course, Disability Awareness: Information to Increase Comfort and Confidence as a pilot. We are offering significant discounts on the course to collect feedback on how to improve it for the final version. Sign up to receive a coupon here.

Deb Russell is the CEO of Deb Russell Inc., which helps companies employ more people with disabilities, and helps sources create a more inclusive pipeline of candidates with disabilities.

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