President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born on January 30, 1882, to a wealthy family in up-state New York. After attending Harvard and Columbia Law School, he focused his sights on the White House by following his relative’s, President Theodore Roosevelt, footsteps by first becoming Assistant Secretary of the Navy. His journey to the White House halted in 1921 when Roosevelt became ill while vacationing with family in Canada. After several doctor visits over a span of a couple of weeks, it was discovered that Roosevelt had contacted Poliomyelitis and now had polio. At the age of 31, Roosevelt became paralyzed from the waist down. Roosevelt’s mother begged him to retire from politics, but his wife, Eleanor, would not let him because she knew that he would regret it. Though the current times believed people with disabilities were a burden, Roosevelt would use his paralysis to lead his country through troubled times.
In 1924, Roosevelt learned about Warm Springs, Georgia where the springs were rumored to cure paralysis. At the springs, Roosevelt found that his legs would hold him upright and that he could swim for hours so he bought the springs for $200,000 as a place for polio victims to seek therapeutic treatment; he personally led pool exercises. Though it was $42 a week for a polio victim to stay at the springs, no one was ever turned away due to lack of money because Roosevelt would personally cover the bills. Though the springs never did cure paralysis, it became a place for people with disabilities to seek therapeutic treatment. Roosevelt Warm Springs Rehabilitation Center is still in existence and serves 4,000 people each year.
While Roosevelt was in Georgia, he came in contact with the locals where he saw extreme poverty, something he never forgot about when he became president in 1932. In his first term, the New Deal (set of programs and policies designed to promote economy recovery and social reform) took place. Roosevelt signed the Tennessee Valley Authority Act (TVA) because the civilians of Tennessee Valley had an average income of $639 per year and 30% of the population had malaria. The TVA developed new fertilizers, taught farms how to replant forest and improve habitats for wildlife, and created dams that provided electricity. Another important part of the New Deal was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The CCC hired a total of 2.5 million young men who planted 3 billion trees and created 800 parks.Each man was paid $30, but $25 of that was sent back home to his family. Separate programs put 200,000 Blacks to work and the Indian Emergency Conservation Work allowed Native Americans to develop roads and schools on reservations. Congress also passed the Social Security Act; it established federally funded old-age benefits and funding for states to provide assistance to blind individuals and disabled children, and extended existing vocational rehabilitation programs. Roosevelt never forgot about the people he met in Georgia and made it his goal to put America back to work and to give Americans self-esteem.
Roosevelt was never photographed in his wheelchair because he did not want Americans to view him as “weak” since he lived at a time when Americans believed people with disabilities were an inferior group of people. He only made two public appearances that showed his paralysis. In 1936, while dedicating a new building at Washington’s Howard University (a Black University) he was asked by the university’s president Dr. Mordecai John if the students could see that he was crippled because the students were crippled because of their race. By seeing that the president was crippled, he would inspire the students. Roosevelt agreed and walked, with his leg braces, painfully down the aisle to the platform. The second time happened in July 1944 when Roosevelt went to Pearl Harbor for strategy sessions. On his spare time, he visited military hospitals. In the amputee ward, Roosevelt was pushed in a wheelchair by Secret Service because he wanted to show his useless legs to those who would face the same affliction. As Sam Rosenman, adviser and speechwriter to Roosevelt, noted “I never saw Roosevelt with tears in his eyes… That day as he was wheeled out of the hospital he was close to them.”
Roosevelt continued to return to Warm Springs every year and every year he was reminded about the poor children in Georgia. Rosenman stated, “He (Roosevelt) made it clear in private conversation that he felt strongly that there was no reason why a child born in some county too poor to sustain a good school system should have to start life in competition with children from sections of the country that had fine schools.” Before World War II, less than 5% of young adults attended college because college was reserved to the wealthy. Roosevelt saw his chance to open education to all of America by using the World War II veterans. In his message to congress he requested federal support for college and vocational training for every returning veteran for up to four years. “Lack of money should not prevent any veteran of this war from equipping himself for the most useful employment for which is aptitudes and willingness qualify him…I believe this Nation is morally obligated to provide this training and education and the necessary financial assistant by which they can secure,” said Roosevelt. The G.I.Bill of Rights passed and Roosevelt signed it into law on June 22, 1944. For the first time in American history,colleges and universities accessible to the common man because Roosevelt saw how important it was for everyone to have education in America.
President Franklin Roosevelt once considered retiring from the public life to focus on getting better, but instead he proved that people with disabilities can overcome obstacles at a time when Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were murdering millions of people deemed inferior due to race, religion, and disabilities. Though he never gave up on his dream of regaining the use of his legs, his paralysis opened his eyes to world filled with poverty, unemployment, poor education, and people who needed inspiration. In 1938, Roosevelt organized the March for Dimes; though it currently focuses on infant mortality, it was once the principle fundraiser for research on polio and provided aid for polio victims. On January 30, 1946, what would have been Roosevelt’s 64th birthday, the dime bearing Roosevelt’s face was released in his honor. On April 12, 1955, 10 years after Roosevelt died, Dr. Jonas Salk announced that that there was a cure for polio…the research was primary funded by Roosevelt’s March of Dimes. As Eleanor said, “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.”
Source: Smith, Jean Edward. FDR. New York: Random House, 2007. 186-636. Print.