When Franklin D. Roosevelt woke up on August 10, 1921, with plans to take his wife and three older children out for a sail in New Brunswick, Canada, he had no idea that it would be the last day he would have full use of his legs. Enjoying some vacation time after running for vice president under James Cox, FDR and his kids sailed the scenic waters near Campobello Island. Afterward, they had a swim in a nearby pond and then he raced the kids back to the cottage. But it was when they returned to the cottage that Roosevelt began to feel odd, feverish and more tired than usual. He decided to skip dinner and go right to bed. “And he never walked without help again,” says Biographer Geoffrey C. Ward. When he woke the next morning, he couldn’t move his left leg, and then his right leg gave way. “I tried to persuade myself that the trouble with my leg was muscular,” Roosevelt wrote later, “that it would disappear as I used it. But presently it refused to work. And then the other.” Two days later, he lost the use of all his muscles from the chest down. He also had a high fever and pain in his neck and back.
At 39 years old and with a promising political career ahead of him, Roosevelt was diagnosed with polio (poliomyelitis), a common disease at the time which can leave some muscles paralyzed, as was the case for FDR.
He continued to hope for a full recovery and spent months in treatment with exercise and therapy, but he saw no progress. On the advice of a friend, he then tried daily swims at a Georgia resort called Warm Springs. He enjoyed the warm waters so much that he purchased the resort to create a hydrotherapeutic treatment center for polio victims. He also created a nonprofit foundation, the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation, where he served as director for two years. His disabling paralysis continued, however, and he gradually began to accept that his condition was permanent.
Acknowledging that he was permanently paralyzed did not dissuade Roosevelt from continuing to pursue his political career, which was remarkable for his time. At this time in history, Americans had a poor image of people with physical limitations—they tended to equate outward disabilities with impaired mental capabilities. The disabled were usually isolated and had trouble finding jobs, let alone high political posts. Despite his now weakened image and the immense obstacle of his physical disability, Roosevelt decided to run for governor of New York.
To maintain an image of strength and vitality, Roosevelt attempted to conceal his physical limitations. Using braces, canes, and holding on to podiums, he stood for all his speeches. Since wheelchairs at the time were big and unmanageable, FDR built his own mobile chair by adding wheels to a small desk chair. This homemade device had a more familiar look and carried less of the stigma of a traditional wheelchair. He also devised a way in which he could appear to “walk” to the podiums by using a cane and holding an advisor’s arm for balance. He would then swing his legs and hips forward, as if on parallel bars. Once in the White House, he ordered the press not to photograph him with crutches, getting in or out of the car or being pushed in the wheelchair.
Though the public may not have been aware of the extent of his disability, most knew that his battle with polio left him with limited mobility. James Tobin, author of The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency, believes that Roosevelt’s disability may have helped him to be elected and given him more empathy for the common man. Tobin told NPR’s Dave Davies that FDR had “a kind of passion for people who are suffering that he couldn’t have had if he had not deeply suffered himself.”
Surprisingly, the subject of his inability to walk never became an issue during his campaign for president in 1932. FDR preferred not to speak of it, even to his family, as he did not want sympathy or pity—what he referred to as “sob stuff.”
In today’s world, where image is scrutinized and secrets are eventually revealed to the public, it is questionable whether Franklin D. Roosevelt would be elected president today. People may be more accepting of disabilities, but many still tend to focus on the image of strength combined with a presidential “look” when choosing their president. But the fact is FDR’s disability only strengthened his determination and resolve. He was perhaps a better president as a result of his condition, as it taught him perseverance and gave him a sense of compassion and acceptance for those less fortunate. “Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people,” he said. “A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough.”
And today, FDR serves as an inspiration for anyone with a physical disability to overcome. The only president to serve more than two terms, FDR saw the country through the Great Depression and World War II. He also developed the New Deal and established Social Security. His lack of mobility never hindered his ability to serve as president.
In January of 2001, through the efforts of the National Organization on Disability and other advocates, a new statue became part of the FDR memorial in Washington, DC. In the original sculpture, FDR’s wheelchair is concealed by his cloak. The new statue depicts a life-sized Roosevelt clearly sitting in a wheelchair. Just prior to the dedication ceremony for the new statue, 16 of FDR’s grandchildren wrote a letter to the New York Times praising the new monument for providing a “permanent, meaningful portrayal” of Roosevelt and his disability and illustrating “how the process of adjusting to living with his disability made him a better and more able man and President.”
The new statue features this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “Franklin’s illness . . . gave him strength and courage he had not had before. He had to think out the fundamentals of living and learn the greatest of all lessons—infinite patience and never-ending persistence.” Despite his many presidential accomplishments, perhaps this was one of his greatest legacies.