Depicting Disability: The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Note to Teachers

Have students read Hugh Gallagher's article "The Politics of Polio," in this issue of Social Education (pp. 264-66). Then have them read the following account of the current debate over whether FDR's disability should be depicted in his new memorial under construction in Washington. Encourage students to find news articles or commentary on the issue by columnists and editorial writers by (1) consulting magazine or newspaper indexes in their library or (2) using the Internet. Divide the class in two and ask them to debate the issue. Have them vote on the issue after the debate.
C. Todd Stephenson

During the 1930s and early 1940s, Franklin Roosevelt gave considerable thought to his own commemoration. He decided to create the first modern presidential library at his home in Hyde Park, New York. Every president since then has followed FDR's lead, and presidential libraries have become the dominant form of presidential memorials outside of Washington, D.C. In considering a more traditional memorial in the nation's capital, Roosevelt reportedly told Felix Frankfurter that he wanted nothing more than a plain block of stone the size of his desk erected in front of the National Archives. Such a memorial was built during the 1960s.
Nevertheless, a Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial Commission was established in 1955, and has dedicated its efforts ever since to creating a grander memorial than the block of stone next to the Archives. After rejecting two modern architectural plans during the 1960s, the FDR Memorial Commission along with the Commission of Fine Arts (which must approve the designs of significant additions to the public space of Washington) accepted a landscape solution designed by Lawrence Halprin in the 1970s. A modified version of this design is now nearing completion.

To understand the difference between landscape solutions and more traditional architectural solutions in memorial design, it might help to compare the Vietnam and Korean war memorials to the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials in Washington, D.C. Landscape solutions are generally lower and less intrusive. They harmonize with their surroundings and make use of trees, plants, and the contours of their site.

The new FDR memorial consists of four open-air galleries, representing each of FDR's terms in office. Framed by granite walls, each room uses flowing water, carved quotations, and bronze sculptures to represent various aspects of Roosevelt's life and of the American experience during his presidency.

One aspect of Roosevelt's life that the sculptures do not reveal is that he could not walk or stand unaided. The omission of FDR's wheelchair, cane, and braces has provoked fierce debate. The leaders of people with disabilities, along with many others, have called for the redesign of one of the planned sculptures, or the addition of a new one, to show FDR in a wheelchair or using a cane. Others disagree. The debate has raised questions about both whose wishes and needs should be observed in the making of memorials and what constitutes historical accuracy.

Those who oppose showing FDR with a cane or in a wheelchair cite a variety of reasons. One man wrote in a letter to the Washington Post that depicting FDR as disabled was "a ludicrous attempt at historical revisionism" and argued that "FDR should be memorialized in the manner that he was primarily perceived by the public during his lifetime."1 Dorann H. Gunderson, Executive Director of the FDR Memorial Commission, said that the sculptures that do not show FDR's handicap are "historically accurate. We know that President Roosevelt himself chose to present this kind of image to the public. To do otherwise would be revisionist history."2 David Roosevelt added that he did not want his grandfather turned into a "modern-day poster child."3 Several Americans wrote that a disabled FDR was uninspiring. Judith Patterson declared, "I would hope that he might be memorialized as I and others of my generation throughout the world remember him: not as a helpless cripple-in the light of what is politically correct in 1995-but as a strong courageous and vibrant leader, one who would never admit defeat in the face of daunting physical odds."4

Those who favor depiction of FDR's paralysis are equally emphatic. Speed Davis, acting executive director of the National Council on Disability, stated, "It was so much a part of who he was, and for them to continue to hide it kind of undermines everything we're trying to do ... It reinforces the idea of shame, the negative value of having a disability, which is less and less true every day. If they want to show the whole person, they have to show all aspects." Alan

Reich, president of the National Organization on Disability, declared, "To push his disability aside, to hide it, is not only an injustice to FDR but a historical aberration and misinterpretation. We should not ... hide it, we should portray it. It doesn't need to be the paramount feature of the memorial, but it's a fact, an important fact."5 The directors of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, an organization dedicated to preserving the legacy and promoting the ideals of the Roosevelts, argued, "Roosevelt's indomitability, even in the face of his disability, is an important part of his legacy, and the fact of his disability should be shown in a significant way at the Washington memorial to FDR."6

Questions for Teachers and Students to Consider
Teachers may want to hold these questions to allow students to formulate their own terms of debate, or they can be used to prompt debate.

1.Stewart Sutton to the editor, The Washington Post, 22 April 1995.

2.Heather Bruce, "FDR Memorial Has New Critics," Boston Globe, 27 December 1994, 1.

3."FDR's Handicap Didn't Matter Then, Now," Omaha World Herald, 8 April 1995.

4.Judith Patterson to the editor, The Washington Post, 22 April 1995.

5.Bruce, "FDR Memorial."

6.From a resolution of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute Board of Directors adopted at its Annual Meeting in Warm Springs, Ga. (11 April 1995).

C. Todd Stephenson teaches history at Louisville Collegiate School, Kentucky.