We discussed in class how the public knew that FDR had a disability. They knew he could not walk and used a wheelchair, but most of the public chose to ignore it. The only time his disability became a subject was during the election process when opposing candidates used the fact that FDR utilized a wheelchair as a way of breaking down FDR’s credibility. The opposing party attempted to use people’s fear of disability to manipulate the public into thinking that FDR was not physically capable of performing the job of President. However, even when FDR’s disability was brought to the forefront through political opponents, the public still supported him. Why, then, would FDR feel the need to hide his disability from the world?
If everyone knew about FDR’s disability but no one cared, why would FDR and those closest to him feel that they needed to the deceive the public into thinking he was not disabled by giving the illusion of walking, hiding his wheelchair and braces, and performing secret modifications to venues? Perhaps, if the public actually saw FDR’s disability, then the voters would have thought differently of him. More likely, I think, is that FDR put on a show not to quell the public’s concerns and fears but to address his own fears.
As we discussed in class, often times when people see a visible disability during the time FDR was President and even today, the people have certain assumptions or stereotypes that they attribute to the person with a disability. One of the examples we discussed in class is that a man with a disability is somehow more feminine than other men, would be more sympathetic, and must rely on other people. In my opinion, FDR feared that he would have these stereotypes attributed to him, and in some ways believed the stereotypes himself. Perhaps, FDR feared that the public would view him as weak if they saw his disability, but I think FDR actually feared viewing himself as weak. He thought if he could hide his disability from the general public, it would be as though his disability never existed. By hiding his disability, FDR created two separate identities. One identity was seen only be a few people closest to him, where he embraced his disability, funded polio research, and enjoyed being around others with disabilities. Another identity was one where FDR rejected any mention or image of his disability, relied on other people to help him conceal the truth, and schemed to keep much of his life secret. Which of these identities was the real FDR? Perhaps, neither is. Perhaps, both are. Perhaps, it is one or the other. The truth is that we will never know the truth about FDR.
One thing is certain. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt contracted Polio, his life changed. He became a person with a disability, and he took intentional steps to hide that disability. Why would he try to hide it? Perhaps, as the book suggests, FDR’s political career would have tanked if his known disability became visible to the public. Perhaps, as I would suggest, FDR was not ready to accept his disability as a part of himself. We may never know the truth about FDR, but we can certainly continue to try to explain his actions.