How Protesters Pushed Jimmy Carter to Support Disability RightsRoundup
tags: Jimmy Carter, Protest, disability rights, Americans with Disabilities Act
Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.
Standing up could be intensely painful for Franklin D. Roosevelt, but he was determined that the public would never know.
Roosevelt was paralyzed from the waist down in 1921 — it's not clear whether that was caused by polio or Guillain–Barré syndrome — and went to great lengths to conceal his disability. Aside from his inner circle of confidants and journalists who covered his political career, few Americans ever understood that FDR, who became the longest-serving president in our history, could not stand or walk unaided. He stood upright only with clunky, awkward braces that placed constant pressure on his abdomen. Yet he bore this burden silently, and when necessary went above and beyond the non-disabled people around him.
One incident stands out: A moment during the 1932 presidential election when Roosevelt remained standing during an unexpected rainstorm, even as everyone around him ran for cover. This was more than showmanship, although it certainly helped his public image as he campaigned to defeat President Herbert Hoover that year. Roosevelt, at the time governor of New York, also remained standing in order to doff his hat to every National Guard platoon commander who passed him on parade. More than a quarter-century later, a Hungarian Jewish immigrant who was a corporal in the 71st Infantry at the time wrote a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt recalling what he had observed (the former First Lady replied with gratitude):
I noticed that all of the occupants in the car had covered their heads or were endeavoring to ward off the rain, but there stood President Roosevelt, hat over his heart, the rain beating down over him, never flinching, every inch a man. This was an example of military, moral and spiritual courage. I have never forgotten it.
That infantry corporal almost certainly didn't know that Roosevelt had a significant disability, and was essentially standing there locked in place. Disabled people throughout history have had to make those kinds of sacrifices, or cover up their limitations even at risk of pain or injury, simply to function in society.
Roosevelt's suffering was not for nothing. Among other things, he founded a comprehensive disability treatment facility in Warm Springs, Georgia, which today is named for him. Over the years, Warm Springs has become a political mecca for aspiring public officials and others who wish to express support for the disability rights movement. When another Democrat, Jimmy Carter, decided to establish himself as a supporter of disability rights during the 1976 presidential election, he visited Warm Springs to make that promise. After he was elected president, however, Carter often struggled to implement key parts of his agenda, and disability rights was no exception. So disabled people had to step in to do the work that the non-disabled simply couldn't get done on their own.