Throwback Thursday

Mr. Peabody and Sherman, classic cartoon characters, in front of an elaborate wall of machinery, the "Wayback Machine" time machine. Mr. Peabody is a white dog with glasses, Sherman is a red haired boy with glasses

Most Thursdays I post whatever I find here at Disability Thinking from the same date one, two, or three years back. This week, all I found was skipped days and a "Housekeeping" post about changes in the site design. So instead, I went looking for something Historical with a capital "H" to post about.

Since we are neck deep in a U.S. General Election campaign, and seeing as how I've been thinking A LOT about the intersection and overlap of disability culture, disability activism, and politics through the #CripTheVote campaign ... I decided to go looking for some good video to share about our one indisputably, really significantly physically disabled President, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Black and white photo of President Franklin Roosevelt sitting in a wheelchair on a patio, talking to a young girl while holding a small dog in his lap

I realize that other Presidents probably fit the definition of disability we generally use today. President Lincoln pretty clearly had recurrent depression. Woodrow Wilson had a stroke well into his Presidency, although he's not perhaps the most empowering example as it pretty much meant he was an absentee President for quite some time. And there are probably others that were hard of hearing, had poor eyesight, or were, to use an archaic term, a bit "lame" while in office.

Franklin Roosevelt, on the other hand, was almost entirely paralyzed from the waist down as a result of polio. He never walked a step without help after contracting Polio in 1921. He used a wheelchair every day, until the day he died, partway into his fourth Presidential term.

If you're reading this blog, of course, you probably know all this. You might also counter that while FDR was disabled, he didn't identify as disabled, at least not publicly. In fact, conventional wisdom is that he succeeded in politics precisely because he deliberately hid his disability from the general public. By today's standards of Disability Culture, that could be viewed as sort of disreputable. FDR "triumphed over his disability" partly by surrendering to or cutting a deal with ableism. I think there's real truth to that.

I also think it's a lot more complicated. For one thing, based on a few books I've read about Roosevelt, and things my Mom told me about growing up during the Roosevelt years, it seems like Roosevelt and the public had a kind of mutual pact to sort of know about his disability and yet not acknowledge it. I'm sure many, if not most Americans had no idea, but Roosevelt was a famous up-and-coming politician before his Polio attack. He ran for Vice President before he had Polio. Anyone at all tuned in to politics knew who he was. And when a few years after his known illness, he gave the speech nominating Al Smith at the 1924 Democratic Convention, he got gasps and wild cheers exactly because everyone saw it as a stunning comeback from "crippling" illness. Crucially, at least some people there had to notice that he didn't bound up the stairs to the podium, or walk briskly down a rope line shaking hands afterwards. He stood, stiffly, helped into position by his sons, and as he spoke, he used unusually animated head gestures to substitute for the usual hand-waving, because he had to hold tight to the podium just to stay upright.

When I read James Tobin's account of this speech in his book The Man He Became, I was inspired. There’s no other word for it. Whether or not Roosevelt hid his disability, whether or not he ever "identified as disabled" the way we talk about it today, whether or not he aided and abetted ableism instead of challenging it ... Franklin Roosevelt was a bad-ass disabled man who made nonsense of ableism by his very example.

And while we're at it, he was incredibly practical and very sophisticated about how he processed his own disability. Without having names for them, he really did blend aspects of what today we would call the Medical Model and Social Model of disability. This enabled him to succeed in the biggest possible way in politics without having to first be “cured” of his disability, even though he, personally, never totally gave up on that goal. He decided quite consciously that his higher priority was politics, so he put the cure he did long for on a back burner basically for the remainder of his very eventful and consequential life. It’s what millions of people disabled later in life still do today.

I can’t find film of FDR’s 1924 “comeback” speech, but here is his nomination speech at the 1932 Democratic Convention: