Publication Date

November 15, 2018

Perspectives Section

Perspectives Daily

A kitchen chair with caster wheels, leg braces, hand rails, ramps, and a 1936 Ford Phaeton with special hand levers—at the Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site (HOFR), these objects do not indicate compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act or federal disability laws. They are historic artifacts. Scattered among the collection that made this place home, these artifacts inform visitors how Roosevelt accessed the world around him.

Roosevelt entertaining guests on the terrace of his home in Hyde Park, New York.

Roosevelt entertaining guests on the terrace of his home in Hyde Park, New York. FDR Presidential Library & Museum/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

For interpretive guides and visitors alike, examining FDR’s disability through place requires confronting and showing sensitivity to shifting attitudes about disability. By recognizing the efforts of disability rights activism in the 20th and 21st centuries, and by being cognizant to the need for accessibility at historic sites, museum professionals can promote an understanding of disability as something that is not static, but historically situated and ever-evolving. In building and creating this awareness, museums commit to greater diversity and the inclusion of people with disabilities.

I first took interest in the HOFR when researching and writing the Telling All Americans’ Stories Disability History series, an effort on behalf of the National Park Service to bring attention to places associated with people with disabilities. In the summer of 2017, I sifted through national park units, National Historic Landmarks, and listings on the National Register of Historic Places to find “disability stories.” The extensive list I created reflects trends in American disability history, from institutionalization to sites connected with education, military, disability rights, and politics. While not the only president associated with “disability stories,” Franklin Roosevelt had visible disabilities, and there are a number of sites affiliated with him located both within and outside the NPS.

Roosevelt was the 32nd president of the United States, and is known for guiding the country through the Great Depression and World War II from 1933 to 1945. Over 10 years before his election, Roosevelt contracted infantile poliomyelitis at the age of 39. By 1921, Roosevelt was a father of five, had served as New York state senator and assistant secretary of the Navy, and was nominated to the Democratic vice presidential ticket. Following his diagnosis, Roosevelt retreated from the public arena, focusing on recovery at Warm Springs, Georgia; on his houseboat off the Florida Keys; and at home in Hyde Park, New York. In 1928, he returned to the political spotlight, initially supporting other politicians and eventually campaigning for his own election in 1933. Even though he never again gained the use of his legs, Roosevelt maintained a regimen of physical therapy and crafted an image of strength and virility for the public. Back at the family estate, he developed innovative ways to access the world around him.

From Springwood, his childhood home in Hyde Park, Roosevelt would often drive up the road to Top Cottage. Roosevelt designed and built Top Cottage in 1939 with accessibility in mind. Physical barriers, such as doorway thresholds, were minimized, and the windows were installed at a level from which Roosevelt could view the mountains beyond the Hudson River. During teatime, he entertained guests—ranging from King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England to Madame Chiang-Kai-Shek of China—while preparing toast from a card table within reach of his chair.[i] Decades before the concept of universal design or passage of landmark disability rights laws, Roosevelt found innovative ways to break barriers and participate fully in his surroundings.

Today, visitors experience both Roosevelt’s home at Springwood and his retreat at Top Cottage differently than he once did. But a visit to HOFR teaches valuable lessons in place-based disability history. FDR’s historic ramps, elevator, and wheelchairs are on display as artifacts and not for public use. Modern renovations, however, continue to make this house accessible: the house tour allows guests to enter by way of an ADA-compliant ramp, take an external lift to the second floor (thus preserving the historic integrity of the home), and view FDR’s ramp and wheelchair from a glass balcony that overlooks the sunken living room. The interpretive staff at HOFR has collaborated extensively with people with disabilities, from both within and outside the NPS, to make the house tour accessible to a range of visitors. Additionally, the neighboring FDR Presidential Library and Museum provides a small exhibit on polio, FDR’s diagnosis, and the founding of the March of Dimes program. Upon request, visitors can also contact the chief of interpretation for other accommodations, including audio-visual programs and ASL interpreters.

With each visit to HOFR, I leave with a lingering question: how can historians and visitors alike respect FDR’s desire to keep his wheelchair use hidden, while also recognizing shifts in perceptions of disability over the decades from a medical to a social model? While the medical model of disability focuses on cure and has historically treated disability as a personal physical or mental condition, the social model suggests that societal barriers and prejudices are what actually determine an individual’s (dis)ability. For museum staff today, understanding these changes is relevant to how they interpret FDR’s disability. Conversations about disability in Roosevelt’s time, for example, were deeply embedded in racial science and eugenics philosophies. Openly identifying as disabled would have tainted the president’s image of independence and strength. Definitions of “disability,” however, are historically situated, and have transformed since FDR’s lifetime. By discussing the impact of disability rights activism across the 20th century, guides provide a more effective interpretation of FDR’s disability both historically and today.

Incorporating FDR’s “disability things,” as curator and medical historian Katherine Ott calls them, into tours and exhibits also allows visitors to examine the past and question their own relationship to disability. These objects challenge nondisabled people’s medicalized assumptions about people with disabilities and encourage them to learn more about how disabled people have been historically marginalized. Furthermore, representations of disability history assist in dismantling barriers and prejudices. As recent articles in the New York Times and Medium about memorializing disability indicate, the demand for inclusion is already there. Place-based disability history, taught through objects and stories, has the potential to create a link between people with disabilities today and in the past.

Historic sites that hold “disability stories”—including battlefields, house museums, and wilderness parks— are critical spaces to interpret and discuss changes in attitudes, medical technology, and access over the 20th and 21st centuries. Visiting HOFR is only one example of how museums can build connections between historic figures and visitors today; when visitors “see themselves” in the stories told, museums enhance a sense of inclusion. I encourage other historic sites and museums to find their own disability stories, work with people with disabilities in developing interpretive programs, and share them with the public.

[i] John G. Waite Associates, Architects, PLLC, The President as Architect: Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Top Cottage (Albany: Mount Ida Press, 2001), 7–8.

Perri Meldon is a master’s candidate in the public history program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her thesis is tentatively called “Interpreting Access: The History of the National Park Service Accessibility Program.”

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