A photo of Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Could a disabled person be President or Prime Minister today?

Layla Harding is part of the Scope for Change campaign network and is a 2nd year Masters student. To mark Disability History Month she writes about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the longest serving US President, who was disabled as a result of Polio.

I vividly remember during one of my Sixth Form lessons when a teacher passing through my history class as we were learning about President Franklin Roosevelt’s role in World War 2  said “Imagine having a cripple in charge of the country?”

As a disabled person who uses walking aides and sometimes a wheelchair, I felt that this poor attempt at a joke reflected many of the opinion’s FDR would have faced in early 20th Century America. But this was 90 years later. Surely we should have moved on in our views on disability?

I hate the word “cripple”; I find it offensive and derogatory and it has no place in today’s society. Leaving behind terms like “cripple” paves the way for more positive discourse around disability. For a teacher to be using this term, even jokingly, shows how far the disability movement still has to go.

The importance of language

Today marks the start of Disability History Month and the theme is language. It’s so important we have this month to celebrate the achievements of disabled people and raise awareness of the importance of language when we discuss disability.

Many today will not know that one of America’s greatest Presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was disabled. Not surprising considering he felt he had to hide his disability for fear of the reaction he would get.

In 1921, aged 39, he was diagnosed with polio, resulting in permanent paralysis and leaving him unable to walk without support.  This seemed to spell the end of a promising political career but he went on to become Governor of New York and America’s longest serving President.

Throughout his political career he hid the fact that he was disabled. It was believed that it would be “a political liability if he were seen as this helpless man in a wheelchair” (Jay Winiki). His steel braces were painted black and covered by the clothes he wore. As a disabled person, I was shocked and disappointed to find out the lengths FDR went to hide the fact he was disabled; but I don’t feel he had a choice given the fear of public reaction.

He would use sticks to carry himself along whilst being supported by someone, which made people believe he could walk. He gave speeches sitting down or leaning against a lectern. Photographers who took pictures of him in his wheelchair would have their film confiscated.

Did FDR hide his disability?

Some challenge whether FDR did hide his disability, claiming he would talk openly about his condition and that it was discussed in the media. However, James Tobin believes that FDR didn’t want to be seen in public in his wheelchair because it was “just too potent a symbol of disability”.  Even today society sees a wheelchair as something one is forced to rely upon rather than something which makes it possible for people to get around and live independently, as I do.

Watching the recent US Presidential Election has had me thinking how disabled people are hugely under-represented in politics. Would a candidate be able to be open about being disabled today?  Considering the attitude of my teacher who felt able to use the word “cripple” and the emphasis placed upon Hilary Clinton’s health during the recent US election, I am not so sure.

Being disabled is not something to hide

School should be an environment in which a young person should feel safe and encouraged to expand their minds, and not feel disability is a barrier to achieving whatever they want.

For a teacher to make this comment was wholly inappropriate. Figures would suggest that few in the teaching profession identify as disabled but reliable data is difficult to find. But we need more disabled people become teachers so that they can show students a more positive view of disability.

I wouldn’t think twice today about challenging  such negative language because like FDR I know that being disabled is not something to hide and does not have to be a barrier to anyone achieving their goals.

Find out more about Disability History Month on our website.

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