Disability World
A bimonthly web-zine of international disability news and views, Issue no. 7 March-April 2001

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The Power of Symbols and Images: After Long Battle, Statue Dedicated of FDR in a Wheelchair, Washington, D.C.

By Barbara Duncan (bjdnycla@aol.com)

A crowd turned out in bone-chilling weather on December 10 to celebrate former U.S. President Clinton's symbolic goodbye to the disability community-the unveiling of a statue depicting President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) in his wheelchair.

Controversy: hide vs. pride
Like many achievements of Clinton's eight-year administration, this one was rife with controversy, pitching those who believe that FDR's preference for hiding his paralysis should be respected, against the views of disability advocates who wanted a realistic portrayal of FDR's use of a wheelchair. After FDR contracted polio in 1921 at age 39, he never took another unassisted step.

After years of wrangling with Congress and the Memorial Commission and $1.65 million later (raised by disability advocates), the bronze life-sized statue in a wheelchair was placed at the entrance to the 7.5 acre Roosevelt Memorial near the Potomac River.

One of the youngest onlookers, four-year-old Hannah McFadden, a disabled Albanian immigrant, didn't need anyone to explain the statue's significance to her. "It means people on crutches and in a wheelchair can do anything," she said, hopping around on her hot-pink crutches.

This silent but powerful message of hope and pride is exactly what the disability advocates and the alliance of Presidents Clinton, Bush (the elder), Carter and Ford wanted the new statue to convey. Unlike other U.S. Presidential statues that are much larger than life and often set high upon pedestals or, even, mountains, this one is purposefully at ground level, encouraging visitors toward a more intimate experience.

President Clinton recounted its personal meaning to him: "In 1997 when I asked for a depiction of FDR's disability at the memorial, I, like every other American who had paid attention, knew that he went to some length to hide his disability on almost all occasions. But he lived in a different time when people thought being disabled was being unable . . . He was a canny fellow and didn't want to risk any vote loss from people seeing him in a wheelchair."

He continued, "One thing I like about the disability movement today is it has moved beyond trying to get the rest of us to do the right thing out of compassion, to doing the right thing because it's the right thing and the only sensible thing to do."

An argument in bronze
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, granddaughter of FDR, said he would be proud of this memorial. "Besides," she added, "memorials are for us, not necessarily for the people they memorialize." The support of the Roosevelt family, the symbolic "keepers of the flame," was crucial to the efforts of the advocates since the opposing groups had amassed evidence that of more than 10,000 photographs of FDR, only four showed him using a wheelchair.

Alan Reich, head of the National Organization on Disability (www.nod.org), the group that raised the funds for the new statue, said that it is an argument in bronze that people can overcome circumstances and become great. Reich, a wheelchair user who worked for the State Department, stressed, "It's much larger than disability, the challenge to overcome circumstance, it is indeed universal."

FDR as Role Model
Educators and social change activists place great importance on role models, especially for youth and minority groups, stressing that they can act as strong signifiers or motivators towards success. Researcher Harilyn Rousso, who has written extensively about the value of role models for women and for people with disabilities, puts it this way: "Stereotypes - images of disabled women as sick, helpless, incompetent - suggest we cannot work. Our low employment rate suggests we do not work. Yet we can and we do. Successful disabled women show how . . . Role models . . . offer . . . inspiration, support, guidance, contacts and concrete evidence that women can survive and thrive in the workplace despite barriers." ("Access to Role Models, Mentors and Muses," in publication)

Many people with disabilities were glad to tell reporters about the significance of the new FDR statue to them. Both members of Congress who use wheelchairs were there: Senator Max Cleland, who lost his legs and an arm in the Vietnam War, said FDR's photo was the first one he put on his office wall, pointed out that, "Roosevelt's experience with his own great depression helped him rise to lead the nation through its Great Depression." Newly-elected Representative Jim Langvin, a wheelchair user due to an accidental shooting, said the statue sends a powerful message: "People from all walks of life should be proud of who they are, no matter what their physical or mental differences are."

Meryl Shector, blind since birth, who works for the Social Security Adminstration, came to see the statue for herself with her hands. She said about FDR, "I took courage from him because I believe since he was able to do what he did, the sky's the limit for me."

Deborah McFadden who adopted Hannah and a disabled Russian child, said the statue made her feel patriotic. McFadden, a former head of federal services for developmentally disabled persons commented, "In their countries, people die from their disabilities or they are put out of sight. In America we don't hide: the President comes out to honor disabled people."

Michael Winter, a high-level Clinton appointee in the Department of Transportation, has used a wheelchair since he was a child. Recalling his year in a hospital at age nine, he said, " My role model was FDR, I thought of him constantly. My mother told me that 'FDR was a great person, he led the country and he was in a wheelchair . . . so, you can do anything.'"

Cynthia Jones, director of the Center for an Accessible Society, agreed with the role model comments, but pointed out that since it took such a fight by the disability community to make it happen, obviously there is still a lot of work to do to achieve full recognition of and civil rights for people with disabilities. The Center, (www.accessiblesociety.org) run by professional journalists, works to focus public and media attention on disability and independent living issues.

Media Coverage
The coverage by leading newspapers and wire services was clearly on the side of the advocates, mostly using direct quotes from disabled on-lookers to underscore the statue's unique significance to this group. One eminent commentator, Hugh Sidey of Time Magazine, noted, "FDR directed the wars against the Great Depression and the Axis powers from his wheelchair." This statement echoes the crowd's chant that day, "And he did it all from his wheelchair." The chant is a twist on a favorite refrain of feminists who in response to the fame of the dancer, Fred Astaire, remind us all that, "Ginger Rodgers did everything he did, except in high heels and backwards!"

Disability Academics Weigh In
In the January 26 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Rosemary Garland-Thomson, Professor of English at Howard University and widely published author in disability studies, writes an essay about how the memorial inscription for the new statue was selected, "The FDR Memorial: Who Speaks from the Wheelchair?"

The article should be read in its entirety (http://chronicle.com/weekly/v47/i20/20b01101.htm) but in summary, the Commission rejected the advocates' first choice: "We know that equality of individual ability has never existed and never will but we do insist that equality of opportunity still must be sought."

Rather, a quotation by Eleanor Roosevelt was selected: "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."

Garland-Thomson makes a compelling case for why the disability scholars felt the inscription should tell a different story. She writes, "We saw FDR as someone whose disability shaped him and who, in turn, shaped his own world and the world that has come after. We looked for a quotation telling that story about disability while eschewing stereotypical stories about courageous people who overcame their disabilities or found serenity through suffering.
"Enough of those oppressive narratives that dominate public thought and circulate in telethons, fiction and sentimental tracts. The FDR memorial should offer up an accomplished leader, not a cheerful or chastened cripple."
There is, however, some irony in that the selected disability inscription is in Eleanor Roosevelt's voice. According to Hugh Gallagher's exhaustive studies of the President (FDR's Splendid Deception and subsequent speeches), although FDR did back an all-out initiative to find and fund a polio vaccine, and he did spend some time each year with post-polio friends at the Warm Springs rehabilitation center, if disability advocates got in the White House door, it was Eleanor who met with and advised them.

(This article utilized the following sources: "A Memorial for All of Us," by David Montgomery, Washington Post, January 11; "Wheelchair Statue of FDR Unveiled," by Angel Wilson, Cox News Service; "Statue Depicts FDR in Wheelchair," by Jeffrey McMurray, Associated Press; "FDR: True to Life," by Hugh Sidey, Time Magazine editorial, January 15; and "Honor FDR on Wheels," editorial, The Contra Costa Times, January 11)

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