Haller, in Representing Disability, says that the message we still live with about FDR is that, if he could “OVERCOME” his disability, “so could and should all the disabled.” (p. 41) The irony, of course, is that he didn’t overcome his disability. He hid it. He lied about it. He colluded with others to pretend that he could walk. If Haller is right, then FDR’s legacy, in terms of disability rights, is very damaging. His effort to appear “fit” by denying his paralysis meant that he supported the notion that a disability made him unfit. In other words, he was only electable if he was cured.
Reading about what Roosevelt accomplished, even just in terms of his campaigning, it’s very hard to understand why there was a question of his fitness at all. But clearly there was, and Roosevelt assumed that putting himself in front of the public as often as possible, with inspiring speeches and considerable stagecraft, would bolster the notion that he was perfectly able to lead. Obviously the question wasn’t about his political or oratorical or leadership abilities, it was purely about his disability. If he didn’t have the use of his legs, how could he be a governor or a president, or really anything other than an invalid? The question arose out of pure ableism.
FDR’s answer to that question was to deny that he was disabled. Rather, he presented himself as an extraordinarily accomplished and determined individual who was “merely lame,” (Houck and Kiewe, 41) not crippled. Roosevelt and his team were also extraordinary in their effort to promote this fiction. The travel and public displays, the planted stories and paid-for medical reports, the jokes and metaphors in his speeches, all contributed to the illusion that he was not paralyzed.
It’s very depressing to think that this negative message is still with us. We see it in the pressure to appear “normal,” to do whatever possible to walk again, to speak instead of sign, to use behavioral conditioning to learn to respond in socially acceptable fashion. FDR’s real legacy, it seems to me, is that capacity is determined by the ways that we’re able, and not by the ways that we aren’t.