Overcoming Obstacles: FDR

FDR's struggles overcoming life in a wheelchair

Franklin D. Roosevelt: Childhood

Franklin D. Roosevelt was born on January 30, 1882, in his parents estate in Hyde Park, New York. For the first eight years, Franklin D. Roosevelt was educated by private tutors; not until he was nine did he attend a school in Germany, where his parents were temporarily living. His parents, James and Sara Roosevelt, were members of the New York aristocracy. His father was a country gentlemen who earned money working in railroads and coal. FDR was an only child and his mother adored him. She would remain a central figure in his life until her death in 1941. FDR's childhood would later shape him into the kind of president America needed.

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FDR: Young Adult

Franklin D. Roosevelt was neither an outstanding student nor athlete, but he entered into life at Groton School and did well enough to go on to Harvard in 1900. At Harvard, he put much of his energy into his social life and extracurricular activities. In 1902, he began to take notice of Eleanor Roosevelt, Theodore's niece and FDR's distant cousin, whom he had seen occasionally during his childhood but who was now a young woman. They fell in love and, after a year's delay granted to his resistant mother, were married in New York City on St. Patrick's Day, 1905. Her father being dead, President Theodore Roosevelt gave his niece away. FDR resumed his studies at Columbia University Law School. He never completed the courses needed to receive an LL.B. degree, however, he passed the bar exam at the end of three years and began a law practice in New York City.

"There are many ways of going forward, but only one way of standing still."

Election of 1910

In 1910, fellow Democrats asked Roosevelt to run for political office, which he agreed. Although historians are unsure of FDR's precise motives for entering politics, a few reasons seem central. First, FDR truly disliked being a lawyer. Second, he enjoyed meeting new challenges and new people, both of which were integral to political life. Third, politics offered him the opportunity to be a leader, which conformed to his understanding of his role in the world. Finally, FDR's vast admiration for former President Theodore Roosevelt urged him to try his hand at politics. In 1912, FDR won re-election to the state senate and forged a friendship with the political journalist Louis Howe, who would become his chief political adviser over the next two decades. However, Franklin D. Roosevelt did not finish out his term.

Wheelchair Bound

Enjoying some vacation time after running for vice president under James Cox, he and his kids sailed the waters near Campobello Island. Afterward, they had a swim in a nearby pond. But it was when they returned to the cottage that Roosevelt began to feel odd, feverish and more tired than usual. He decided to skip dinner and go right to bed. “And he never walked without help again,” says Biographer Geoffrey C. Ward. When he woke the next morning, he couldn’t move his left leg, and then his right leg gave way. At 39 years old and with a promising political career ahead of him, Roosevelt was diagnosed with polio (poliomyelitis), a common disease at the time which can leave some muscles paralyzed, as was the case for FDR. Paralyzed from the waist down, he set about trying to recover the use of his legs with characteristic energy, optimism, ingenuity, and determination.
The Myth of Roosevelt's Wheelchair

Character vs. Self

As Franklin D. Roosevelt pursued on his ongoing journey of walking again, he gradually began to accept the fact that he wouldn't be able to walk again. On the advice of a friend, he tried daily swims at a resort called Warm Springs. He enjoyed it so much that he purchased the resort to create a hydro-therapeutic treatment center for polio victims. He also created a nonprofit foundation, the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation, where he served as director for two years. His disabling paralysis continued, however. A TIME article from July 12, 2013, said that news coverage portrayed him as someone "who had been stricken by polio but who had triumphed over his affliction—which of course he had, despite the fact that he remained paralyzed. This was the image that FDR and his advisers wished to project, and they largely succeeded."

Character vs. Society

While running for his presidency, FDR hid his wheelchair from the people. A TIME article from February 1, 1932, said that swimming and exercise “have made it possible for the Governor to walk 100 ft or so with braces and canes. When standing at crowded public functions, he still clings precociously to a friend’s arm.” As for images of him in his wheelchair, it took far more than a "gentlemen's agreement" for the Secret Service to discourage photos and newsreel film of the president in his wheelchair. Instead, they used force. If agents saw a photograph being taken of Roosevelt, they would seize the camera and take out the film.

Overcoming the Obstacle

Although dealing with this disease was difficult, many believe that his personal struggles shaped him into the man and president he was. When FDR made the decision to remove himself from political life, he began his rehabilitation process at his home in Hyde Park, New York. For several years, his main focus shifted from politics to recovering from his paralysis. In January 1922, FDR was fit with braces that locked in at the knee and continued the length of his leg, and by the spring of that year he could stand with assistance. FDR made a plan that one day he would walk the length of his driveway, which was a quarter-mile long. Although he never accomplished the task, he used it as a training procedure, working himself to the bone in hopes that he would be able to walk again if he continued exercising.


  • President
  • New York state senator
  • Purchases resort for polio treatment
  • Governor of New York
  • Drastically decreased unemployment from 25% to 2% in his term in office

Works Cited

"The Myth of FDR’s Secret Disability | TIME.com." Ideas The Myth of FDR’s Secret Disability Comments. Web. 21 Mar. 2016.

"The Myth of Roosevelt's Wheelchair." YouTube. YouTube. Web. 21 Mar. 2016.

"Overcoming Obstacles: How FDR's Paralysis Made Him a Better President - K12 - Learning Liftoff - Free Parenting, Education, and Homeschooling Resources." K12 Learning Liftoff Free Parenting Education and Homeschooling Resources. 15 Jan. 2015. Web. 21 Mar. 2016.