NOTE: I translated this article from the original article I wrote on the Italian web magazine sociale.it
Being the most powerful man of the world, hiding to the public his disability and wheelchair, and mostly being successful in his purpose. We are talking about the singular story of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, one of the most famous disabled politicians who ever lived, who was the President of the United States for 12 years, including the dramatic years of the Second World War. In 1921, at the age of 39 years, Roosevelt was stricken by a serious form of polio, which heavily compromised the function of his legs, but not his determination to climb the ladder of U.S. power. Since he feared that his disability would have reduced his credit, he did the best he could in order to make it appear less serious than it actually was. Let’s see what means he employed to do that.
On a wheelchair in his office, standing in public
At the beginning, Roosevelt was completely unable to stand up and walk on his own. Soon, though, he learned to stand and to walk short distances by using heavy leg braces. These braces, when he showed up to the public, were wisely hidden behind his trousers. This trick allowed him to mask the most of his disability. As can be seen in the photo below, when he appeared in public he used to walk by leaning on an assistant – usually his son James – on his left, and on a stick on his right.
The Americans and the rest of the world, in this way, were likely to have the perception of a person with only a slight disability, while the truth of Roosevelt’s everyday life was far more harsh. He spent most of the time on a wheelchair, and had to be assisted even for simple tasks like putting his trousers on. He wore his iron braces, very hard for him to keep on, only when he appeared in public.
“You and I are the best actors of America”
(Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Orson Welles)
But his serious handicap didn’t prevent him, during the 12 years of his government, from accomplishing his difficult presidential tasks, even during the intense years of the Second World War. He thought, on the contrary, that the uncapability of moving helped him to concentrate on his work: another famous quote was attributed to him
“I don’t move about my office. But I can, and do, move about the State”
(Franklin Delano Roosevelt)
Intelligence in action
Clearly, for the handicapped people who are famous, it isn’t so easy to mask their disability. To pursue this goal, Roosevelt and his entourage had to do a lot of work, and we can state that they succeeded only partially. They employed also the Intelligence: every time that the agents who surrounded Roosevelt saw a photographer who was protraying Roosevelt on his wheelchair, they used to seize him the camera and rip the film. Nowadays, photos can be sent and shared instantly via web, and preventing their diffusion would have been quite more difficult. Also most of the press was instructed not to mention Roosevelt’s disability, let it alone that probably his mis-en-scene tricked even some journalists. From time to time, though, something transpired, and some photos of the President on wheelchair appeared on newspapers, as the one below where he is protrayed together with his niece.
Did they really believe it?
But were people really fooled by Roosevelt’s fiction? Doing some research, you find different points of view among historicians and older people. The prevailing opinion is that nearly all the population knew about Roosevelt’s disability, but only the most informed people were aware of its extent, and of the fact that he spent most of his time on wheelchair. So it seems that Roosevelt really succeeded in fooling the public to some extent.
One of the best U.S. Presidents…
Most of historicians think that Roosevelt has been one of the best U.S. Presidents: this due both to the intense program of economic and social reforms (New Deal) that drove the U.S. out of the Big Depression of the Thirties, and to the wisdom with which he carried on the difficult war against the Axis Berlin-Tokyo-Rome, and he contributed to save the world from Nazifascism. But what we can say about his trial to mask, at least to minimize, his disability when in public?
… but was it necessary to act?
“When a disabled person believes he’s normal, he will appear normal also to the other’s eyes“. There’s indeed something true in this assertion, but one thing is to build up a lifestyle as normal as possible, and to overcome your inferiority complexes, another thing is try to appear more able than you actually are. In general, this is a strategy we wouldn’t suggest to handicapped people who want to become famous, or to reach whatever other goal. Sooner or later, your limitations will be discovered, and then often you’d better show people what you actually are since the beginning. We imagine that many people, also important people, who dealt with Roosevelt, were stunned by the discovery that his disability was more serious than he made people believe. Indeed, though, Roosevelt accomplished his tasks well also from a wheelchair, and so we imagine that, to his interlocutors, it didn’t make such a difference if he was disabled or not.
Maybe yes!! Feigning in order to overcome prejudices
But then, Roosevelt wouldn’t better show himself for what he really was? Yes and no. Indeed, it’s also true that sometimes people’s prejudices don’t even leave to the disabled people the opportunity of trying, we think for example about all the disabled people who are perfectly able to perform a certain work and are discarded a priori because of their disability. In this case, the strategy of concealing one’s own disability, clearly possible only in certain cases, becomes understandable: first you aim at reaching a certain position, and then you demonstrate to be able to hold it regardless of your disability. We will never know, but it may be that, if in 1932 all the Americans had known that Roosevelt spent most of the time on a wheelchair, they wouldn’t have made him President. And nobody would have been able to demonstrate that the U.S. can be ruled also from a wheelchair.
Pubblicato da Giulio Simeone
Giulio Simeone is a web journalist based in Rome, Italy. He graduated in Mathematical Sciences in 2002, then he worked several years as a software developer and later, around 2010, began to turn his efforts to journalism. Now he writes for the web magazines www.sociale.it and www.socialplace.it, that are published by the company he works for. He speaks fluent Italian, English, and Spanish, his e-mail address is [email protected]
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