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                John Williams' Disability Column

John Williams is an award-winning journalist whose recent column in BusinessWeek Online has won the Easter Seals Equality, Dignity and Independence Award, Helen-Lifetime Communications Achievement Award and the Stuttering Foundation of America's 2000 Journalism Award. John is also the recipient of the National Council of Communicative Disorders Charles Van Riper Award, for his work in the communications field and for inspiring others who either stutter or have communications problems.

     FDR: He Did It All From His Wheelchair
     By John M. Williams

     Posted November 17, 2000

     He has been called the greatest American of the 20th 
     century, and has served longer than any other
     president in our nation's history. He led the country
     through the Great Depression, assuming leadership at a
     time when it was greatly needed, and when other
     politicians and business leaders fled. He was
     innovative in his approach to solving our domestic
     problems, especially unemployment. During World War
     II, he was the cement that held together the Allied
     forces, and he possessed a rare genius for victories
     in political battles. He saw America as a great
     democracy and as a leader of the international
     political and economic community. His supreme
     confidence inspired the nation and the world to
     extraordinary feats of individual and collective
     accomplishments. And he did it all from his

     Stricken by polio in 1921 at the age of 39, Roosevelt
     refused to let his disability deter him from his
     ambitions and his goal of high-level public service.
     While using a wheelchair, he was elected Governor of
     New York and later President of the United States. And
     in other areas of his life, he has served as an
     inspiration for all Americans with disabilities.

     During one White House dinner, Roosevelt was sitting
     next to the great actor Orson Welles. In a toast,
     Roosevelt said, "The two greatest actors in the world
     are here, and I am sitting next to one of them."
     Roosevelt was a great actor. He had a flare for the
     dramatic and a great voice. In his book The Splendid
     Deception, Hugh Gallagher describes how Roosevelt
     "fooled" the nation by not revealing his polio.
     Roosevelt and his staff-hopefully erroneously-believed
     that if the nation knew about his disability, they
     would not vote for him. In his efforts to serve the
     public, Roosevelt was virtually never filmed or
     photographed in his wheelchair. The press honored his
     wishes and conspired with him in this deception. Such
     an effort would not work today, when the press would
     never go along with any deception of that nature from
     a political leader.

     It is tempting to regret Roosevelt's efforts to hide
     his disability from the public-but it must be recalled
     that he lived in a different, and less tolerant, time.
     It is hard to know in hindsight how open-minded people
     would have been, though we can hope they would have
     loved their President all the more for understanding
     the personal challenges he faced. But the public
     feared polio then as a great crippler and eventually a
     killer. They believed once you had polio you spent the
     rest of your life in bed and sometimes iron lung.
     Roosevelt did not hide that he had had polio, but he
     felt that his political support depended on his
     appearing to have fully recovered from the disease; he
     gave the impression to the public that he had stiff
     joints rather than letting them know the truth, which
     was that he could not stand unassisted.

     What matters is not what we did not know then--but
     rather what we do know today. Now that we know
     Roosevelt used a wheelchair, and accomplished all he
     did from that chair, we are in a position to recognize
     how critical it is to focus on every person's
     abilities and not write anyone off due to their
     disabilities. Other prominent people since
     Roosevelt--from Stephen Hawking to Stevie Wonder--have
     all shown us how critical this recognition is.

     Disabilities change people, and Roosevelt's polio
     changed him. His wife, the great Eleanor Roosevelt,
     said of her husband: "[His polio] softened his heart.
     It gave him compassion for others. It toughened his
     resolve. It added to his courage. It made him a
     stronger human being."

     I believe that because he faced the likelihood of an
     early death and certainly a lessening of his physical
     abilities, Roosevelt pushed himself harder than anyone
     thought he should and could. Recognizing his
     mortality, he kicked death in the face and exemplified
     the phrase, "We have nothing to fear, except fear
     itself." Day after day, week after week, year after
     year, Roosevelt leaped from crisis to crisis with an
     unbending spirit and courage. He was working on and
     for the good of the country. The nation saw this, and
     they supported him by electing him four times to the

     Even without full knowledge of the extent of
     Roosevelt's disability, the American people knew that
     Roosevelt understood their daily struggles. As a
     result, he was loved and honored more that any other
     president of the 20th century. The American people
     knew he felt their pain, even though they didn't
     realize that he himself was in physical pain due to
     his polio. They knew that he understood what it was to
     have your daily triumphs and failures, although they
     didn't know that this understanding sprang from his
     struggles with treatment and recovery. And they knew
     that as president he would not abandon them even
     through the worst crises, although they did not know
     that such resolve came from his bout with polio.

     Roosevelt's courage, determination and strength
     inspired those around him. Like the press, they kept
     the extent of his disability hidden from the general
     public. And yet when they measured the man,
     Roosevelt's wheelchair was certainly the last thought
     in their head. There are very few recorded comments on
     Roosevelt's using a wheelchair by family, friends, and
     co-workers. This speaks volumes on the fact that with
     Roosevelt, it was his abilities that counted most- not
     his disabilities.

     When Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, he left behind
     an immortal legacy as a man of ability. The nation and
     the world mourned him as a great hero, a great
     American, a great leader, and one among the people.
     More than any other disabled American, he closed the
     gap between ability and disability-both through his
     accomplishments in life, and through what we have
     learned about his life with disability in the 55 years
     since his death. Everyone should remember the greatest
     crises of the last century, our nation was lead by a
     man with a disability. And he did it all from his

     Early next year, at the FDR Memorial in Washington,
     D.C., the National Organization on Disability, in
     cooperation with the National Park Service, will
     commemorate FDR as a leader with a disability through
     the dedication of a new statue. Created by eminent
     sculptor Robert Graham, the statue depicts FDR using
     his wheelchair. N.O.D. initiated, led the fight for,
     and raised the funds for the statue. Given that there
     are only two existing photographs of Roosevelt in his
     wheelchair, this statue will present a lasting and
     powerful image of Roosevelt as he truly was during his
     most important years- a leader whose disability did
     not hinder, but rather inspired him to greatness.

     I shall attend the presentation. I invite you to
     attend as well!

     For more information:
       * Open Celebration for FDR Memorial Wheelchair
         Statue (Postponed Due to Scheduling Conflicts)

       * FDR Memorial Wheelchair Statue Campaign Exceeds

       * "Rendezvous With Destiny" Campaign

     John Williams has been writing about disability issues
     for 22 years. He writes a weekly column for Business
     Week Online magazine and is knowledgeable on assistive
     technology products. If you have any comments or
     questions, or would like more information on this
     week's articles, please contact John Williams at

     The opinions expressed in this article are those of
     the author, and not necessarily those of the National
     Organization on Disability.

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