The Paralysed President, Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945)

Volume 19

Updated 15 February 2022

By Charlie Bunker

Franklin Roosevelt was and remains the longest serving president in the history of the United States. In the 12 years Roosevelt led America, he won a record four presidential elections, dragged his country from the depths of the Great Depression, and commanded the free world to victory in the Second World War in a triumph over tyranny. These achievements have led to Roosevelt being heralded as one of the greatest presidents of all time. 

However, few people know that from the age of 39, Roosevelt could not walk independently. He was paralysed from the waist down by polio, and in private he used a wheelchair, in public he wore heavy iron leg braces under his specially long-cut suit to obscure the black-painted metal and was always either sedentary or standing whilst holding the arm of one of his aides or sons. 

Roosevelt received a very privileged upbringing in comparison with most Americans, but his disability became something the American people could relate to him through. In 1933, Roosevelt won his first presidential election during the grips of the Great Depression which followed the 1929 Wall Street Crash. When campaigning Roosevelt could have chosen to remain in his wheelchair, however he did not want to portray to the American public an image of - what he viewed as - incapability or helplessness.

Therefore, Roosevelt made every attempt to stand when giving his speeches. A mutual arrangement followed with the press agreeing not to photograph him in his wheelchair or when being aided to his car in case of falling; something which could unquestionably not be achieved today. The common man would have struggled to see Roosevelt as having a disability due to his carefully tailored means of concealment.

There are many reasons for why Roosevelt is considered one of the greats of politics. Particularly, his work on reform, relief and recovery in the form of his infamous ‘New Deal’ certainly revived the US from the financial ruin it was suffering during his first term in office. His disability gave him the knowledge of what it was like to be disabled by ‘barriers’ in society, and this enabled him to empathise with the quarter of Americans who had no work to go to in 1933.

The situation required radical action - something his predecessors had failed to provide - and action is what Roosevelt gave. Until then, the US Government had generally been a passive bystander to the problems of the people. Under Roosevelt it became an active force in trying to resolve them.

As the country slowly but surely recovered from the Great Depression, Roosevelt faced the second big challenge of his time in office in the form of World War Two. While America initially remained neutral, Roosevelt organised much needed support for Britain. When the US finally became involved, it was under Roosevelt’s leadership in which America became the global arsenal of democracy. From this, America also became the most powerful and wealthiest nation on Earth and this success won Roosevelt an unprecedented fourth presidential election in 1944. 

Roosevelt embraced the fact he survived polio and used his position as president to help others. He gave a lot of support to polio rehabilitation, with events such as his 1924 birthday celebration raising $1 million for Warm Springs, the facility he used during his rehabilitation, and which went on to become the premier polio therapy location.

During the 1930s, public opinion meant that people with disabilities were often looked down upon. However, during his time in office, Roosevelt helped to change the image of those with disabilities. If he was able to lead America out of the greatest financial depression in history and to victory against the Axis Powers in 1945, what was to stop any other person with a disability from succeeding?

Franklin Roosevelt remains one of the greats. He overcame the pain caused by the polio virus and held office in the most important and straining job in the world. Nevertheless, like many before and after him, the job of president in conjunction with his long-term health issues eventually took their toll; the man who had led the country through its darkest days since the Civil War and the man who had been a part of people’s lives for so long died in April 1945, leaving an indelible legacy.

Although adversaries have critiqued Roosevelt for undermining free-market capitalism in America and, as shown with his many run-ins with the Supreme Court, for unconstitutionally expanding the powers of the US Federal Government through his New Deal legislation; Roosevelt was a great leader who met the expectations of his electorate for 12 long and eventful years.

Roosevelt embraced his disability and in return America embraced him. As he said in his 1933 inaugural address to a nation dwindling and despondent, ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’.


FDR Inaugural Address, 4 March 1933 

FDR American Experience PBS documentary

I have also paraphrased a section of narration from a documentary on FDR and the New Deal. However, this paraphrase was from research I did in May 2021, and I can no longer find the reference for it.

Category: Modern