FDR's Disability: Image and Reality
"To this day no one has ever heard him admit that he could not walk...Never have his crippled legs deterred him from going where he would."
- Time, February 1, 1932
Early in his presidency, the image of FDR as an exceptionally strong and active leader became firmly fixed in popular culture.
That image contrasted sharply with the reality of his physical disability.
In 1921, Roosevelt contracted polio. It left him paralyzed below the waist. During the 1920s, he developed the capacity to stand with leg braces and to appear to "walk" short distances in public, using a cane and gripping a companion's arm.
Americans knew FDR had battled polio, but the degree of his paralysis was less understood. Each day, Roosevelt's valet helped him get out of bed and dress. He moved from room to room by wheelchair. Aides lifted him into cars and, sometimes, carried him into buildings. When he traveled, advance teams built ramps and bolted podiums to the floor. The press operated under a tacit understanding that FDR should not be photographed in a wheelchair, being carried, or in other vulnerable situations.