- President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is renowned as the leader who steered America through the Great Depression and World War II.
- During his time in office he was unable to walk unaided, and was reliant on a wheelchair in private.
- The White House sought to suppress photographs of the president in a wheelchair out of the public eye, and the Secret Service destroyed pictures taken by journalists defying the request.
- Roosevelt even hit the campaign trail while maintaining the pretense that he could walk, using a variety of devices to maintain the illusion.
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This spring marks 73 years since the death of one of America’s iconic presidents.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt is renowned as the president the country through two of the greatest crises of the 20th century: the Great Depression and World War II.
But less well-known than his negotiation of grave crises is the president’s private struggle with his disability, and the concerted campaign to keep his reliance on a wheelchair out of the public eye.
While vacationing in Campobello Island, New Brunswick, in 1921, Roosevelt was struck with an attack of polio that left him paralysed from the waist down.
Roosevelt was 39 at the time and and plotting his political comeback after unsuccessfully running as the vice-presidential candidate on the ticket of Democrat James M. Cox in the 1920 presidential election.
Devastated by the loss of his ability to walk, Roosevelt took himself out of the public eye to recuperate.
Through years of practise, Roosevelt managed to train himself to walk short distances using metal leg braces, reliant on the support of one or two other people standing at his side. He also developed his upper body strength, and was praised for his physique by boxer Jack Demspey.
After several years he returned to politics, becoming New York Governor in 1928, and in 1932 became the first – and to date only – disabled man elected to the presidency.
America was more accepting of a disabled politician than he had expected, with citizens “sympathetic to his condition rather than embarrassed,” according to the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.
Yet Roosevelt was determined to keep images of his wheelchair use out of the public eye, concerned about the impact on public opinion at a time when many at the very least considered such a disability as a disqualification from high office.
Secret Service agents would block the view of him using a wheelchair, and would requisition and destroy pictures taken by journalists who tried to get round this.
But most reporters respected the White House’s request for the president not to be photographed in a “disabled or weak” state.
He developed a series of tricks to mask his condition.
At public appearances, Roosevelt developed a method of appearing that he was walking, by holding on to an adviser or his son, carrying a cane in the other hand, and swinging his legs forward.
Another method involved wearing leg braces and tightly grasping a lectern to stay upright. This posture helped develop the head gestures that marked his powerful oratorial style.
“Roosevelt was able to stabilise himself in a standing position at a podium only by firmly gripping the podium and thrusting his pelvis forward so that his hip joints were hyperextended. Except in this position, he ran the risk of buckling at the hips and falling,” wrote historian Hugh Gregory Gallagher.
In 2013 an Indiana college professor Ray Begovich unearthed rare footage of President Roosevelt being pushed in his wheelchair while conducting research in the National Archive.
It showed Roosevelt being transported down a ramp after visiting the USS Baltimore in Pearl Harbour in July 1944, sailors obscuring a full view of his wheelchair.
“This raw film clip may be the first motion picture images of the president in his wheelchair, and it was never meant to be shown to the world,” Begovich, a journalism professor at Franklin College, told the Associated Press at the time.
Roosevelt died in office in 1945, his disability still unknown to much of the world.
“Many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people saw him at fairly close range over the White House years and most did not notice that he was physically handicapped,” wrote Gregory Gallagher.
Some experts have claimed that Roosevelt’s disability was a source of shame to him.
For other historians, his refusal to let polio define him was at the heart of his underdog appeal to American voters, and forged his strength of character.
He even helped to create one of the first ever modern rehabilitation centres in Warm Springs, Georgia, where he had received treatment in the ’20s.
“I think he was that man before he became sick, but he only discovered who he really was through the ordeal of polio. So it gave him a kind of confidence in his own strength that perhaps no one can have until you’re tested,” author and historian James Tobin told NPR.
In 2001, a statue was unveiled in Washington, D.C., showing Roosevelt in his wheelchair: an image he had for so long sought to conceal from the public. The wall behind the statue is inscribed with Eleanor Roosevelt’s words about her husband’s disability.
“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.”