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A Legacy of Hope and Dignity.

The new FDR statue's unveiling closes a multiyear campaign to portray President Roosevelt the way he lived day-to-day: as a wheelchair user.

Four Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) staff members received invitations from President Bill Clinton, to join him in commemorating the January 10 dedication of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) Memorial's Prologue. PVA Deputy Executive Director John Bollinger and Associate Advocacy Directors Lee Page, Susan Prokop, and Nancy Starnes shared the moving tribute with high-ranking government officials, nationally acclaimed disability rights advocates, and even a sprinkling of Hollywood notables such as Lauren Bacall and Angelica Huston.

The FDR Memorial is located between Washington, D.C.'s picturesque Tidal Basin and Potomac River. The initial design's four outdoor "rooms" represented FDR's four presidential terms and are characterized by cascading waters and massive red Dakota granite walls inscribed with Roosevelt's eloquent words.


Missing from the original design, however, was any depiction of FDR in his wheelchair. The memorial's architect, Lawrence Halprin, believed the design appropriately reflected FDR's attitude about his disability after contracting polio at age 39. FDR made great efforts to minimize his disability's effects. Of the 10,000 photos taken for the presidential archives, only 4 show him in his wheelchair.

Seated next to the great actor Orson Welles at a White House dinner, President Roosevelt offered this toast: "The two greatest actors in the world are here, and I am sitting next to one of them."

The National Organization on Disability (NOD) saw the memorial's original design as an edited version of FDR's real life story. It was more important to convey the facts as we know them today than to filter them in terms of what people did not know about FDR during his presidency.

Hugh Gallagher, author of FDR's Splendid Deception, said, "It is important to Americans with disabilities--and important as a symbol of how American society perceives its disabled people--that the memorial depict the man as he was: tall, strong, heroic, and disabled. Don't let them steal our hero!"

More than 50 disability organizations across the country agreed and joined the call for adding a statue of FDR in a wheelchair.


The heated deliberations over depicting FDR in a wheelchair flourished for ten months and included a NOD-led demonstration in Washington, D.C.; debate pitting the opinions of Roosevelt family members and historians against those of disability advocates; letter-writing campaigns urging U.S. politicians to support the cause; opinion articles in the national media; and planned protests for the day of the original memorial's dedication.

In April 1997, following months of controversy, Senator Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) introduced a resolution mandating that FDR's disability be depicted. The Senate approved the resolution one day before the memorial's dedication ceremony, and the House followed suit two months later. President Clinton signed legislation directing the secretary of Interior and the National Park Service (NPS) to make the addition, mandating that the funds for the statue be raised by the private sector.

In response, NOD Chairman Michael Deland and FDR's granddaughter, Anne Roosevelt, formed the Rendezvous With Destiny Committee [honorary chairmen were former Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George Bush] to raise private funds for the new statue. The first donation, $378.50, came from schoolchildren at Lindbergh Elementary School in Palisades Park, N.J. An accompanying note from one sixth-grade student said, "We got involved in this project because we care about truth. A statue that doesn't show the way he was when he was president is not the best memorial for him."

The five-year Rendezvous With Destiny Campaign inspired large- and small-scale donors from across the country {o give more than $1.65 million for the statue. In 1999, Congress added $3 million in federal spending to NPS's budget for construction of the "room" in which the statue would be sited.

Robert Graham created the resulting life-size bronze sculpture depicting FDR in his wheelchair, which was fashioned from a kitchen chair and bicycle wheels. The sculpture is dwarfed by the minimalist design of the plaza where it rests. Designers said the sculpture should not be "larger than life" so it would be more approachable. The scale sends an important message to visitors that the magnitude of the spirit should not be measured by the vulnerability of the body.


At January's dedication ceremony President Clinton said, "This is a monument to freedom--the power of every man and woman to transcend circumstance, to laugh in the face of fate, to make the most of what God has given. The reason this is a story of freedom is that what matters most in life is the spirit and the journey of the spirit. And we lug along that journey [with] whatever body God gives us, and whatever happens to it along the way, and whatever mind we were born with.

"But a clever mind and a beautiful body can themselves be disabilities on the spirit journey. And so we celebrate freedom and dignity for incredibly brave people, whose lives were all embodied by that incredibly brave man whose disability made him more free for his spirit to soar and his nation to survive and prosper."

Eleanor Roosevelt said her husband's polio "... softened his heart. It gave him compassion for others. It toughened his resolve. It added to his courage. It made him a stronger human being."

Reflecting on Roosevelt's leadership during the Great Depression and World War II, award-winning journalist John Williams said, "More than any other disabled American, [Roosevelt] closed the gap between ability and disability ... through his accomplishments in life and through what we have learned about his life with disability in the 55 years since his death. Everyone should remember [that during] the greatest crises of the last century, our nation was led by a man with a disability. And he did it all from his wheelchair."

The FDR wheelchair statue will teach history in a way that is particularly accessible, regardless of ability, language, nationality, or age. FDR's heroic struggle is universal in its relevance. His story is a reflection on America's acceptance of the role of people with disabilities and a challenge to examine our own potential.

NOD believes the statue will inspire visitors with these important messages:

* People no longer have to hide disabilities to prove their strength or earn respect.

* Personal struggle can lead to greater strength and vision.

* Anyone can contribute and make a difference in the world regardless of limitations--physical or otherwise.

I sat in my own wheelchair alongside the FDR sculpture and looked in the direction of President Roosevelt's upturned face--toward the Washington Monument. It's easy to imagine young people with disabilities drawing inspiration from that symbolism and setting their sights on goals that are loftier but more realistic than any generation before them could have imagined

What Matters Most ...

President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) never took an unassisted step after he contracted polio at age 39, in 1921. While few photographs exist of him in his wheelchair, he relied on it daily, including during his dozen years as president (he was elected four times, serving from 1933 to 1945).

"While Roosevelt hid his disability from the public during his lifetime, believing the country wasn't then ready to elect a wheelchair-user as president, he nonetheless stayed in his chair when it was uplifting to particular audiences, such as when touring veterans hospitals," says National Organization on Disability Chairman Michael Deland.

In his remarks at the new statue's dedication on January 10, President Bill Clinton included this anecdote illustrating Deland's comments:

"In the summer of 1944, President Roosevelt spent an afternoon at a naval hospital in Hawaii. The men there had been seriously wounded, and many had lost limbs. He insisted on wheeling himself into their wards. He wanted to show them that he, the President of the United States, could not walk any better than they, but he could still show courage and hope and inner strength."

Signed by 18 of FDR's grandchildren, a letter to the New York Times during the five-year Rendezvous With Destiny Campaign to raise funds for adding the statue stated, "The goal of the FDR Memorial must be to enable future generations to understand the whole man and the events and experiences that helped shape his character. We believe this cannot be accomplished without a commitment to a permanent, meaningful portrayal in the Memorial of FDR's disability and how the process,of adjusting to living with his disability made him a better and more able man and President."

According to Deland, "FDR's successful leadership proves for all time that it's ability--not disability--that counts."

NOD President Alan Reich adds, "This dedication represents a great victory for people with disabilities. The statue will be an inspiration to people worldwide.... FDR's memorial will finally acknowledge his significant disability experience, which forged his leadership qualities and enabled him to successfully lead the nation through the worst crises it had ever faced."

NOD was founded in 1982 to promote the full and equal participation and contribution of America's people with disabilities in all aspects of life. The organization is funded entirely by private donations and accepts no government funding. Former President George Bush, who signed the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), is NOD's honorary chairman.

Contact: NOD at

Nancy Starnes is an associate advocacy director at PVA National Office in Washington, D.C. Following a plane crash in 1973 that resulted in a paralyzing spinal-cord injury, she developed an interest in public service. She was the first woman elected to the Sparta, N.J., Town Council and served as mayor in 1984. She is a frequent speaker on programs she helped develop for people with disabilities.

In writing this article, Starnes used material from the National Organization on Disability; John M. Williams, "Closing the Gaps," November 17, 2000; and The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, January 10, 2001.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Paralyzed Veterans of America
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Title Annotation:dedication of Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial dedication
Author:Starnes, Nancy
Publication:PN - Paraplegia News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2001
Previous Article:Sports & RECREATION.

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