FDR and the History of Disability

Franklin Roosevelt standing on the terrace at Springwood, supported by a cane.

Franklin Roosevelt on the east terrace at Springwood, Hyde Park, 1933.

Franklin D. Roosevelt is an icon of disability history. Even though his image may have been carefully managed for political reasons, his paralysis was no secret. FDR’s life (and the historical interpretation) demonstrates that his paralysis was more than a physical condition. Disability is not only a state of health; it is also a social construction—an interaction between the features of a person’s body and the social or environmental barriers they encounter.

This interaction between body and environment is evident at Hyde Park—the ramps and handrails at the Big House (Springwood), the swimming pool at Val-Kill, subtle architectural details at Top Cottage, and FDR's customized wheelchairs. It lives, too, in the stories of family, friends, and employees who lived and worked here.

The lives of FDR and those who knew him challenge dominant medical and pathological views of disability. Though often viewed as helpless or victims of illness and injury, people with disabilities acted to alter their social status and stigmatization. Their history is everywhere in American history. Disability experiences are present in the history of immigration, labor, war, social reform, politics, education, and popular culture. The very public life of FDR as a person with a disability intersects and threads all these topics. At the Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site, we are re-examining FDR in this broader context to provide an interpretation of history that highlights and enriches the meaning of disability in American culture.

 
FDR's wheelchair in the family library and living room.

Disability Representation at Historic Sites Fellowship

The National Park Service’s Mellon Humanities Postdoctoral Fellowship Program places recent humanities PhDs with National Park Service sites and programs across the agency. The Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site will host one of fifteen Mellon fellowships funded for 2023-2025. This fellowship will support our efforts to reconsider the interpretation of disability history at the park. Disability material culture and accessibility at historic sites will be a focus of the fellowship. The fellowship program is generously supported by Mellon Foundation in partnership with National Park Foundation and American Conservation Experience.

Meet our Fellow

 
FDR in a wheelchair on the terrace at Springwood

Disability Things in the Museum Collection

People who live with disabilities often rely on things that help them navigate both natural and man-made barriers. These objects can reveal stories of struggle, emotion, exclusion, and human innovation.

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Sketch of Tiny Tim on the shoulder of Bob Cratchit holding with a crutch and exposed leg brace.

A Disability Christmas Carol

Each year during the Christmas season, two icons of disability come together for a Roosevelt family holiday tradition. In this article, we explore and deconstruct some of the myths and stereotypes surrounding disability.

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FDR seated with Ibn Saud on the deck of a large boat.

FDR, Wheelchairs, and Diplomacy

In 1945, FDR and King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia secretly met aboard the USS Quincy. It was the first time a U.S. president met with a Saudi Arabian king. Their friendship and the exchange of gifts is the story of a wheelchair in U.S. diplomatic relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

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A bronze statue of FDR seated in a wheelchair

Disability History in the National Park Service

The Disability History series brings attention to some of the many disability stories interwoven across the National Park Service system. “Disability stories” refer to the array of experiences by, from, and about people with disabilities represented across our nation. People with disabilities are the largest minority in the United States, but their stories often remain untold.

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    Last updated: December 21, 2023

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