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Updated 11:30 AM October 27, 2003



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Investing in Ability event
FDR made 'tacit agreement' with public about disability

Few pictures are known to exist of Franklin D. Roosevelt in his wheelchair, and a small number of others show his leg braces or assistance of any kind. Roosevelt lost the use of his legs due to polio and rose to become president, an important step for disabled people that was kept in the shadows for years, said a speaker at an Investing in Ability event.

Richard Harris, director of disabled student development at Ball State University, talked about the ways Roosevelt handled his disability in the Oct. 17 speech, "FDR: Elected in Spite of or Because of His Disability?"

Harris's presentation tackled the issue using family stories from Nina Roosevelt Gibson, Roosevelt's granddaughter, a personal friend of Harris. Harris also showed rare photographs of Roosevelt in his wheelchair and leg braces in order to emphasize the severity of the 32nd president's disability.

"There was self-discipline on the part of the press and the photographers."
–Richard Harris

Roosevelt "is consistently ranked as the 3rd or 4th best president we ever had in terms of leadership and within this power position he couldn't stand on his own and he couldn't walk," Harris said.

He discussed the various ways Roosevelt handled his disability with the public, allowing no photographs of his wheelchair, arriving hours early to speeches and events in order to avoid the public eye, and using his bodyguards and his sons as crutches so he could stand while delivering his presentations.

"There was self-discipline on the part of the press and the photographers," Harris said. "I believe that Franklin Roosevelt made a tacit agreement with the American public."

Roosevelt acted as the strongest leader possible in exchange for silence about his wheelchair and disability, Harris said. Yet he didn't hide his disability, Harris said, citing Roosevelt's involvement with the March of Dimes and other organizations.

Harris described the leadership role Eleanor Roosevelt took after her husband's paralysis in 1921, a rare move for a first lady at that time. She became his "eyes and ears," attending speeches and conferences in place of Roosevelt when he couldn't travel, and giving him what Harris called "empathy and insight."

Pictures of Roosevelt at his summer home in Warm Springs, Ga., show him swimming with his children and engaging with other people stricken with polio. Roosevelt died from heart disease at Warm Springs in 1945. Harris discussed "how confused we've been and continue to be" about disabilities and stressed the necessity of "reasonable accommodation" for disabled people.

He asked the audience whether it would be possible for Roosevelt to be elected today with his degree of disability. The consensus was that he would not be elected, in large part because of press scrutiny.

The event was sponsored by the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities and University Housing.

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