As a political scientist, my father devoted time to studying and writing about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, our 32nd president. He recently suggested that I watch Sunrise at Campobello, the story of Roosevelt contracting polio and becoming a cripple at the age of 39.
Until it happened to me, I didn't recognize the profound effect of becoming disabled in middle-age. Unlike me, FDR never walked again, but after seven years of facing what we go through – the grieving, the depression, the redefinition of self, the hoping, the endless therapy – he decided not to live the quiet, comfortable life of a wealthy invalid but to run for President of the United States. Audacious!
Taking office as the Great Depression peaked, FDR shaped relief programs such as Social Security, which Americans have enjoyed for nearly 80 years. The political battle over these progressive reforms was as difficult then as it is today, and I wonder if the humility and compassion that FDR gained while adjusting to his disability gave him the courage and patience to push this legislation through.
My dad says that without polio, FDR wouldn't have become president because he would have run too early and lost to an entrenched Republican Party, which didn't become vulnerable until the Depression. My dad says that without FDR, Hitler would have won. In Hitler's vision of the world, invalids like FDR were candidates for euthanasia.
What a difference a cripple can make.