Franklin Roosevelt’s Contribution to Disability Rights

Ron Berger

roosevelt102way_sq-6943e8ab2b83948dfb2f059bd2672e3dc2bd3cbb-s800-c85Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945) is considered by many to be one of the greatest presidents in the history of the United States, but he had to hide his polio-induced paralysis and use of a wheelchair lest the public think him too weak to be a national and world leader. During his public appearances, according to Daniel Holland, Roosevelt “worked hard to master the use of leg braces that would lock in place when he was lifted to a standing position and allow him, with great effort and with some support from another person at his arm, to swing each leg forward as if he were walking.” In private, however, he relied on a wheelchair for mobility.

FDR_-_Warm_Springs_-_late_30s-_needs_permRoosevelt came from a wealthy family and attended Ivy League schools. Prior to contracting polio at the age of 39, he served as undersecretary of the US Navy under President Woodrow Wilson, was a vice-presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket that lost the election in 1920, and was elected governor of New York in 1928. At the onset of his paralysis, Roosevelt sought a cure for his condition (a cure was not found until Jonas Salk developed the first vaccine in 1955, which effectively eliminated polio as a cause of disability). Roosevelt had learned about another man with a disability, Lewis Joseph, who claimed to have experienced “improvement in the functioning of his legs after spending a summer in the mineral waters of … [a] spa in Warm Springs, Georgia” (Holland). During his first visit to the spa in 1924, Roosevelt found that the warm mineral water—which kept a constant temperature throughout the year and had a higher density that increased buoyancy—helped him to “exercise and perform muscle stretches for longer periods of time than had been typical for him” before.

While Roosevelt gradually gave up hope for a cure, he came to believe that Warm Springs could provide those living with paralysis with a supportive environment in which to enhance their health and quality of life. Using two-thirds of his personal wealth, Roosevelt purchased the Warm Springs property and pursued “his vision for a new rehabilitation community” (Holland). The first brochure of the Warm Springs Hydrotherapeutic Center, which carried Roosevelt’s signature, read:

It is not the desire or intention to make the Hydrotherapeutic Center at Warm Springs a hospital or sanitarium, but a place where these patients can live as far as possible normal lives, and at the same time receive the best treatment known to science at the present time.

To these special methods of treatment must be added the psychological effect of the group treatment, the stimulus caused by a number of people pursuing the same end, and each spurring the other on to more and better effort.

In spite of the strides of medical science and the generous gifts to preventive medicine, comparatively little has been accomplished toward the restoration to active and useful citizenship of the more than 300,000 people in America who are partly or wholly crippled.

I think most cripples, children or adult, are worth taking an interest in. Economically, this work is sound; humanly, it is right. Incidentally it is reaching out into a field which no other agency is now adequately reaching. We need pioneers (cited in Holland).

In making these claims, Roosevelt was establishing Warm Springs as a precursor to the independent living movement, which later emerged in the 1960s, advancing the idea that independent living for people with disabilities entailed the quality of life that could be achieved with or without accommodations and assistance. At a time when public transportation and buildings were inaccessible to wheelchairs, Warm Springs created an accessibly designed environment. In 1931, a newspaper article in the Macon Telegraph reported:

At Warm Springs everything is [accessible]. Ramps give convenience to the hotel, not a step or a threshold may be seen in any of the cottages. . . .“ Architects make things hard when they design public buildings, theoretically for the use of all the people,” a woman at Warm Springs declared. “Look at the post offices, court-houses, railroad stations, churches and the Federal edifices in Washington! All of them with smooth slippery staircases up to their doors. The approach to the library of Columbia University in New York City is a sold mass of railless steps. To save me I can’t get into the New York post office on Eighth Avenue—neither can the great majority of Polio cases in Manhattan. Beauty of design in entrances seems to sacrifice ease of access” (cited in Holland).

Fdr-memorial-wheelchair-sculpture1In this way, Roosevelt brought a special sensitivity to the problems faced by people with disabilities and other people in need. And as president during the Great Depression, his program of social reform included the Social Security Act (SSA) of 1935, which provided benefits for the unemployed, elderly, widows, and destitute children, as well as assistance to blind people and children with disabilities. In the 1940s, this program was expanded to include aid to seriously disabled people who were homebound, as well as disabled adults requiring vocational rehabilitation services. In 1956, the SSA was amended to create a federal cash-benefit program, Social Security Disability Insurance, for workers who acquired a long-term disability. And in 1972, the Supplemental Security Income program was added, which provides a federal cash-benefit for individuals with disabilities who have very low incomes, regardless of their working history. These individuals also qualify for Medicaid, which was established in 1965, the federal-state program for low income individuals and families.

Between 1968 and 1988, more than a dozen pieces of federal disability legislation were enacted into law that built upon this legacy—including the Architectural Barriers Act, Urban Mass Transportation Assistance Act, Education for All Handicapped Children Act, Telephone Communications for the Disabled Act, and Fair Housing Amendments Act. And in 1990, the comprehensive Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, which granted full legal rights to people with disabilities. Although the ADA has been marked by controversies regarding its interpretation and application, it remains the landmark federal legislation for people with disabilities in the United States.


Daniel Holland (2006), “Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Shangri-La: Foreshadowing the Independent Living Movement in Warm Springs, Georgia, 1925-1945,” Disability & Society, vol. 21, pp. 513-35.

Richard Scotch (2001), From Good Will to Civil Rights: Transforming Federal Disability Policy, Temple University Press.

Jacqueline Vaughn Switzer (2003), Disabled Rights: American Disability Policy and the Fight for Equality, Georgetown University Press.

One thought on “Franklin Roosevelt’s Contribution to Disability Rights

  1. Madison Eastsider Gary Krugman contracted polio in the 1950s at age 25. Despite a prognosis of inability to walk and of associated limitations, Gary–with the devoted assistance of equally-determined wife Evelyn–refused to accept this. He continued to work in Oscar Mayer’s paint shop for nearly 30 years, remained active recreationally to his limits, and set an example of courage and inspiration for three sons and the many friends and acquaintances who knew him. Gary lived a productive life to the age of 88, a testament to the programs initiated by FDR. Not coincidentally, he was a fierce Democrat in the progressive tradition.

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