Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Topic for Discussion...Handicaps and Politics

When you stop for a moment and consider Franklin Delano Roosevelt you have to be amazed and filled with awe that a man who had suffered through such a tremendous physical tragedy as he did during the summer of 1921 was able to rise to the highest office in the land given prevailing opinions concerning the disabled at that time.

FDR contracted polio…or what was thought to be polio while on vacation and even though various cures never worked to restore his legs he also never accepted the fact his paralysis was permanent and constantly felt he was getting better.   Many state today his paralysis might have been from the effects of Guillain-Barre Syndrome and not Polio, but no matter the cause FDR was what our society deems as handicapped.

Yet, at the time of his death in 1945 and for years afterward very few Americans knew the full extent of FDR’s physical limitations.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt....one of three public photos showing him in his wheel chair
Once he entered the political fray again he was very careful not to allow the general public to see him in his wheel chair.    The picture I’ve shared here is only one of three that exist showing his chair.  He worked very hard at manufacturing a type of walk to appear as normal as possible.  Using iron braces on his legs he twisted his torso back and forth while using a cane for support.   FDR’s sons generally accompanied their farther on public appearances and walked by his side to support him.  His arrivals and departures from public events were orchestrated so that FDR was never seen getting in or out of his vehicle. 

By 1929, FDR was governor of New York….by 1932 he was running for President of the United States.

So, how was this done?   In a September, 1978 article in Reviews in American History dealing with  general opinions regarding the handicapped in years gone by P.K. Longmore advises handicapped people were kept at home, out of sight, and in back bedrooms by families who felt a mixture of embarrassment and shame in their presence.   It’s hard to fathom today, but it was true, and FDR knew this.  He didn’t want to appear weak or as H.G. Gallagher states in FDR’s Splendid Deception, “Those with disabilities were viewed as flawed in moral character as well as body.”

Knowing this FDR and his family as well as close supporters opted to hide his disability as much as possible, and the media allowed this.   It was a different time.   There was line drawn between someone’s personal life and their political one.   In fact, political cartoons actually showed FDR running, jumping, and even leaping, and many thought he actually could.

So, would it have been possible during the early half of the Twentieth Century for someone in a wheel chair to be elected to public office?    Obviously FDR thought it would be an issue for him.   It was a personal decision to obscure the fact as much as possible.  

But….paralyzed men were elected to public office during the 1920s including seats in our Congress.

Meet William D. Upshaw or “Earnest Willie” as folks in the Fifth Congressional District in Georgia knew him.    

William D. "Earnest Willie" Upshaw...
Yes, Congressman Upshaw is in a wheelchair.   At the age of 18 he fell on the crosspiece of a farm wagon and was paralyzed from the waist down until very late in his life.   I discovered Upshaw’s story while researching and writing about local history where I live.   You can read more about Upshaw’s entry into political life at my local history blog titled Every Now and Then here.

As I learned more about the Upshaw story I had to think about how interesting it would be to discuss with students how President Roosevelt  endured his handicap….how he decided to obscure his condition from the public while contrasting Congressman Upshaw who didn’t hide inability to walk at all….from anyone.   One of the most interesting facets to the story concerns both men as they both……yes, BOTH of them……ran for president in 1932.   Upshaw was a staunch Prohibitionist and was the candidate for the Prohibition Party.

The dynamic begs for examination, doesn’t it?    Two handicapped men running for president during an era when the disabled were shunned and kept out sight and many felt their morality was in question.  Upshaw chose to be out in the open…..while FDR didn’t. 
It should make for some interesting discussion in the classroom, don’t you think?