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FDR, Disability, and Presidency

Bronze sculpture of a girl with a leg brace and a crutch and a man in a wheelchair. They extend their arms to each other.

In the photo you may recognize FDR – Franklin Delano Roosevelt – the 32nd president of the USA. This sculpture is on Roosevelt Island that is on the East river between Manhattan and Queens. What is special about this person?

A path leading to the sculpture has slates with dates and events happening on the island, in the life of FDR, and in the world from his time until now. The events include World War II, polio pandemic, polio vaccine, foundation of the UN, eradication of polio, passage of the ADA.

The last slate says: “All communities become more like Roosevelt Island: accessible, inclusive, and welcoming.”

This installation made me think about my experience with meningitis, deafness, accessibility issues, and the ongoing COVID pandemic. I visited the island and took a picture of the sculpture a few weeks ago. The island was named to honor FDR.

While being a history geek, I do not claim to be an expert in world history or in the life of FDR. Most information about him can be found online. I will share some parts that I know and my thoughts as they relate to my life.

I would like to speak about FDR because October is National Disability Employment Month. 

FDR was the longest serving president in American history. He represented the country from 1933 to 1945. 

Among his major accomplishments as the president were:

  • Leading the country through the Great Depression and World War II;
  • Passing a series of programs and reforms known as the New Deal;
  • Playing a major part in the origin of the United Nations. 

Prior to becoming the president, FDR served as:

  • A senator of NY state from 1911 until 1913;
  • An assistant to secretary of the Navy from 1913 to 1921;
  • As a governor of New York from 1929 to 1932.

There are many more significant accomplishments that are too many to list in this article. You can learn more about them on the FDR Suite website.

What’s special about FDR and his accomplishments? 

Roosevelt did all this while having a significant physical disability. He contracted polio in 1921 at age 39 and became a wheelchair user.

You may say FDR was just lucky because he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. However, when FDR became disabled, his mother hoped he would retire from politics. Roosevelt was stubborn and would not let his disability get in the way of his goals. He also had support from his wife and political advisors.

After taking a pause from politics to recover from polio, FDR went back to politics, became a governor of New York, and eventually served as the POTUS. 

Not only he accomplished a lot as a politician, but also made contributions to the disability community:

  • Starting the March of Dimes to find a cure for polio;
  • Using ⅔ of his personal wealth to purchase the Warm Springs as a precursor to the independent living movement;
  • Founding what is now the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation.

FDR’s disability was not a secret during his political career and did not even prevent him from getting votes as a presidential candidate. The citizens were reported not to be fazed by his disability and even to be supportive of him as a NY governor and a USA president.

However, Roosevelt preferred not to show much of his disability to the public. His Secret Service team made sure that there were no public photos of him in a wheelchair. Some sources state that there are only 2 photos of FDR in a wheelchair.

He often had to navigate environments inaccessible to him. For example, a regular wheelchair wouldn’t get him through many doorways. So he used a narrower kitchen chair and attached caster wheels to it. As you can see in the picture above.  

According to American Historical Association: “Decades before the concept of universal design or passage of landmark disability rights laws, Roosevelt found innovative ways to break barriers and participate fully in his surroundings.”

For example, Roosevelt designed and built Top Cottage in 1939 with accessibility in mind. It is not far from his childhood home in Hyde Park that was not accessible to him.

That’s why seeing the aforementioned sculpture and the slates leading to it made me think. 

FDR reminds me of myself as a deaf person navigating through my life after contracting meningitis at age 2. Deafness hasn’t prevented me from attending regular schools, communicating in at least 5 languages, and working with non-disabled people. 

I also have had to deal with accessibility barriers throughout my life. I spent most of my secondary education in regular schools without any formal communication access services like interpreters or captioners. I had no captioning access on TV until I was 15 years old. 

Deafness has never made me feel self conscious. I like to be independent and to use the maximum of my abilities. However, I also have some limitations and deserve full and equal access as a deaf person.

Eventually, I started advising businesses, media producers, and event organizers on how to improve accessibility of their products, services, and environments for the world’s largest minority of 1.85 billion disabled people.

It has been over 75 years since FDR’s death and over 30 years since the passage of the ADA law. 

Yet, sadly, many non-disabled still assume disabled people are unfit for jobs or expect them to do work for free. Many employers do not trust disabled people to do their job well. I find it ironic because there are many non-disabled people who do a poor job.

Many highly qualified disabled professionals are often passed over for jobs in favor of non-disabled professionals or worse – lesser qualified. The reason? The employers feel the cost of accessibility accommodations to be a financial burden.

When some disabled people do get hired, they often face discrimination at work. Employers would pay them lower salary than average, offer low quality access services, or would not provide access services at all.

It’s frustrating enough to deal with non-disabled people who have no awareness about disabled people and their accessibility needs. It’s even more frustrating when non-disabled people who work or provide services to disabled people are talking about/for/over us while not making their content accessible to us. I cannot count how many events and audiovisual materials on accessibility lack high quality captions and transcripts for deaf people.

Often accessibility decisions for disabled people are made by non-disabled people without asking them for advice. Wrong assumptions about disabled people lead to less optimal accessibility services.

I’ve experienced all this firsthand as a deaf employee, a deaf independent consultant, and a deaf speaker. That’s why I have had the pleasure of working with non-disabled people who are willing to learn from me, value my experience and expertise, and pay me accordingly.

Are you a business owner? Are you an employer? Are you a provider of products or services?

Are you concerned about having a disabled employee and covering accessibility costs?

Every time you are doubting the abilities of disabled people, please think about FDR.

Imagine how much this person had done as the longest serving president of this country. Being a head of the state is a very stressful job. Especially when leading the USA through the Great Depression and the World War II. It’s stressful enough for a non-disabled person. Roosevelt did all this while also in a wheelchair and dealing with accessibility barriers! His responses to the challenges he faced made FDR one of top-ranking presidents by scholars – along with Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.

The issue is not disabilities but barriers put up by society.

Would you prefer a non-disabled employee who doesn’t do their job well or a disabled employee who is a diligent worker and brings you profits? Regardless of whether it’s a custodian or a CEO position.

Even if you hire a disabled person, it’s not enough to just welcome them to your team. It’s also important that your environment is accessible to them and makes them feel fully included. It would help them become more productive in any role.

Like the aforementioned slate says, all communities need to be accessible, inclusive, and welcoming.

Is your business is interested in learning more about how to improve experience for disabled people? Send me a message. I would love to work with you.

Published in Accessibility

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