Responding to pressure from disabled Americans, President Clinton announced Wednesday he will appeal to Congress to include a statue of FDR in a wheelchair as part of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial.
“I’m pleased to offer this legislation so that generations of Americans will know that this great president was great with his disability,” said Clinton, who himself used a wheelchair after injuring his knee earlier this year.
Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, co-chairman of the commission that oversaw the creation of the memorial, agreed to introduce legislation ordering a new statue that plainly displays Roosevelt’s disability.
The announcement was a victory for a coalition of 52 groups representing Americans with disabilities that had threatened to stage a protest in wheelchairs during the dedication of the memorial next week. They argued that the memorial as originally conceived does not do enough to show that Roosevelt was paralyzed from his waist down and did not walk unaided during his presidency.
“His surmounting his disability was one of his greatest achievements,” said Alan Reich, president of the National Organization on Disability, which led the drive to change the memorial. While Roosevelt chose to hide his disability while alive, “memorials are for future generations,” Reich said, “and they deserve to know the man as he really was.”
Maria Echaveste, the White House public liaison officer, said the president’s decision reflects his belief that Roosevelt, as a forward-looking man, would want the world to know he surmounted disabilities to lead the country through the Great Depression and World War II.
“Whatever Roosevelt’s efforts to hide his disability, that was a different time, a different reality,” she said.
The memorial now includes a photograph - one of only two known to exist - of Roosevelt in his wheelchair. A replica of Roosevelt’s wheelchair is also displayed and a timeline states that the 32nd president was stricken with polio in 1921 and never again walked unaided.
One of the memorial’s two statues depicts FDR sitting on a chair with small casters, which he often used in public, but it is not clear from the statue that he was disabled.
Sixteen of Roosevelt’s 27 living grandchildren said in a statement earlier this month that the memorial should reflect their grandfather’s disability since it “most likely gave FDR much of the strength, courage and determination that made him the great president and leader he was.”
“It would be a disservice to history and the public’s interest if the impact of polio on the man were to be hidden,” the statement added.
However, David Roosevelt, an FDR grandson who served on the memorial commission, supported the current design.
“At no time did this commission consider ‘hiding’ FDR’s disability,” he said. “His disability will be depicted for all to see but it will not and, in my opinion, should not be the primary focus of the memorial.”