Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Disability:
Was He Successful in Concealing It?
Overview: By viewing historic photos and political cartoons, students will examine the success of FDR's attempts to hide (or at least downplay) the extent of his physical disability. They will also learn about attitudes toward those with disabilities as they discuss the reasons for this concealment. This lesson is appropriate for students in junior or senior high school and will work best as part of a unit on Roosevelt, the New Deal, or disability history, rather than as a stand-alone activity.
Objectives: Students will 1) understand the extent of FDR's physical disability; 2) determine whether he was successful in concealing it from the public; and 3) examine some of the reasons for this concealment.
Introduction: On August 10, 1921, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was stricken with polio. While sailing that afternoon, he and his children noticed a brush fire on a small island. They went ashore and put out the fire. FDR then jogged two miles across Campobello Island for what he thought would be a refreshing swim. However, rather than feeling refreshed, he returned home totally exhausted. FDR began to read the newspaper, but felt too tired to continue. "Remarking that he seemed to have a slight case of lumbago, he put down the papers, climbed the stairs unassisted, and went to bed. He would never walk again" (Gallagher, 1994, p. 3).
Until his death nearly 24 years later, FDR attempted to conceal the extent of his physical disability from the American people. Was he successful? Examine the available evidence and decide for yourself.
Student Activity: After presenting the above introduction, explain to the students that they are to work in groups of three or four and come to a group consensus regarding whether FDR was successful or unsuccessful in concealing the extent of his disability from the American people. They will do this by examining the large collection of historic photos and political cartoons available at the following Internet locations:
FDR Library and Museum
After coming to their conclusions, they will choose two photos and two political cartoons that they believe provide the best evidence to support their position. Each group will print their photos and cartoons and then present them, along with an explanation, to the rest of the class.
Discussion: After the students share their conclusions, photos, and cartoons (all or nearly all will correctly conclude that FDR was successful), ask them to describe what the photos revealed regarding how FDR succeeded in this "splendid deception." As this discussion proceeds, help them by pointing out that, as Gallagher (1994) has documented, FDR was never lifted in public nor was he ever seen in his wheelchair. Rather, when out in public, he always stood, steadied by an aid, was seated in an ordinary chair, or sat in the backseat of his car. The bottoms of his leg braces were painted black, so as to be difficult to distinguish from his socks and shoes, and his pants were made purposely long to cover them up. When he gave a speech, he held firmly onto a podium that was bolted to the stage. He was always seated as close to the podium as possible, and he would "walk" to the podium, with help, often from his son Elliott, by "tightly gripping his son's arm. In his right arm Roosevelt held a cane . . . In this posture he could 'walk,' although in a curious toddling manner, hitching up first one leg with the aid of the muscles along the side of his trunk, then placing his weight upon that leg, then using the muscles along his other side, and hitching the other led forward - first one side and then the other . . ." (Gallagher, 1994, p. 65).
Ask the students to speculate as to why Roosevelt went to such great lengths to hide the extent of his disability. Though they will probably know that a "cripple" could not have been elected president, explain that in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, those with disabilities "were viewed as flawed in moral character as well as body" (Gallagher, 1994, p. 30). Therefore, they "were kept at home, out of sight, in back bedrooms by families who felt a mixture of embarrassment and shame about their presence" (Longmore, 1987, p. 359). Follow this discussion by asking if the students believe that attitudes such as these still exist today.
Explain to the students that the press surely knew the extent of Roosevelt's disability, yet they did not write about it. In fact, Gallagher notes that FDR fell at least three times in public, including a fall that occurred during his "walk" to the podium to deliver his acceptance speech at the 1936 Democratic Convention (p. 101). Ask students if they believe the press' complicity in FDR's attempts to hide the extent of his disability was ethical. Also, ask if such an unspoken agreement between a U. S. president and the press could possibly exist today.
Finally, ask the students if they think that it would be possible for a person who uses a wheelchair to be elected president today. If time permits, this question might be used in a debate, with teams of students presenting arguments for and against the notion that a person who uses a wheelchair, regardless of her/his ability, could now be elected president.
Application: If time allows, have each student choose an FDR cartoon and create a modified version portraying him as he really was - an incredibly able person who wore leg braces and used a wheelchair. Reassure them that artistic talent will not affect their grade. Rather, it is the concept, not the product, that is important.
For additional information on FDR, see The FDR Library and Museum and The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. For many additional lesson plans on FDR, go to my U.S. History Lesson Plans Page.
Gallagher, H. G. (1994) FDR's Splendid Deception. Arlington, VA: Vandemere Press.
Longmore, P. K. (1978, September). Uncovering the Hidden History of People with Disabilities. Reviews in American History. (pp. 355-364).
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Posted by Edmund J. Sass, Ed.D. Last revised 10-8-2015.
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