Hiding a Disability

The majority of the country did not know President Roosevelt was handicapped. "When he met Orson Welles, he said, 'Orson, you and I are the two best actors in America,'" says biographer Hugh Gallagher. "And he was right."


Alistair Cooke, Journalist: I don't believe five Americans in a hundred knew he was paralyzed. I think if it had been absolutely common knowledge, it would have been very difficult to elect him.

Hugh Gallagher, Biographer: The country just simply didn't perceive Roosevelt as being handicapped, and they would look and they just would not see what they were seeing. People wanted him to be president, he wanted to be president. There was this little matter of being crippled in the way.

The President was always performing. He was performing before crowds, before visitors of state, the Congress and so forth, but also for his family and everyone else. When he met Orson Welles, he said, "Orson, you and I are the two best actors in America," and he was right, you know. He was right.

Hugh Gallagher, Biographer: For large crowds, they would build a ramp for the car, so the car would come into the stadiums, drive up on the ramp and then the President, still seated, would address the public.

And they had the braces painted black, even though they were shiny steel. He wore black shoes, black socks, black trousers -- black trousers cut long so that the braces all but disappeared if you weren't looking closely.

Chalmers Roberts, Journalist: Most of the pictures you see of him, he's either standing up and if you look carefully he's holding onto somebody's arm or he's setting in a chair. There are very few pictures of him in a wheelchair. This was not exactly a conspiracy, but it was a conspiracy of consent between photographers and the White House, something that could never exist today.


My American Experience

My American Experience photos

Share Your Story

Who is your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Reagan? Clinton? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?

  • Additional funding for this program was provided by

  • NEH

  • Additional funding for this program was provided by

  • NEH