Touring the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial was a definite highlight of my recent trip to Washington DC. At the same time, my eyes were opened to how far our society has actually come in accepting a physical disability.
President Roosevelt had residual lower limb paralysis following polio at age 39. He used a wheelchair every day of his four-term presidency. Was America aware of this? Newspaper publicity never showed the chair. Of the 30,000 photos studied for his memoirs, only two were found showing him in the wheelchair.
With the unveiling of his memorial in 1997, President Roosevelt was depicted sitting down with a long cape hiding the wheelchair. The disabled of America protested insisting the president’s disability be made visible: “He was our only president in a wheelchair.” Against the designers wishes, the memorial now exposes FDR’s secret.
Viewing this ‘prologue’ to the memorial, I was struck by how small and alone FDR looks seated in his wheelchair. How small and alone disability can make us feel. Thank God, times have changed.
Back at home, thankful for my trusty wheelchair that gives me the dignity of independence, I grieve President Roosevelt’s obvious shame associated with his. And I ponder how could a key figure on the world stage hide his inability to walk unaided much less hide his wheelchair? Hopefully none of us are living in such bondage.
I welcome your thoughts as I wrestle with this one.