Skip to content

Disabilities and a Presidency

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) is considered one of the most successful and effective American presidents in history. 

Below is a brief timeline of his life:

  • FDR was born in 1882 in Hyde Park, New York, to James and Sara Roosevelt
  • Franklin and Anna Eleanor Roosevelt were married in New York City in 1905
  • FDR was elected to the New York State Senate in 1910 and re-elected in 1912
  • In 1913, he joined the Wilson administration as assistant secretary of the Navy
  • In 1920, the Democratic party named FDR their vice-presidential candidate running on the ticket with James Cox . They did not win the office
  • In 1921 FDR was diagnosed with polio at the age of 39
  • FDR won the governorship of New York in 1928 
  • In 1932, during the height of the Great Depression, FDR won the Presidential election by a landslide and delivered his famous inaugural speech assuring Americans nationwide that they had ‘nothing to fear but fear itself.’"
  • On April 12, 1945, just weeks before the Germans surrendered, ending World War II and the Third Reich, the president collapsed and died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

On August 25, 1921, Dr. Robert Lovett diagnosed FDR with infantile paralysis or polio, an incurable disease that left him paralyzed in his legs. It was only through a grueling rehabilitation process, and the support of his family and close confidantes that FDR could regain some use of his legs. He used a wheelchair and leg braces to move around and often had to be lifted in and out of cars or carried up stairs. "Eleanor later said of this time: 'I know that he had real fear when he was first taken ill, but he learned to surmount it. After that, I never heard him say he was afraid of anything.'" Franklin D. Roosevelt: Life in Brief

An important part of that therapy was FDR's time in Warm Springs, GA. ​​Warm Springs was known for its natural hot springs, which he believed to have therapeutic properties. FDR found that spending time in the warm waters of the springs provided him with some relief from his symptoms. After only a few times in the springs, FDR could stand in four-foot water on his own, something had not been able to do before.

In 1924, an article by Cleburne Gregory (PDF) of the Atlanta Journal was published in an issue of Sunday Magazine. This article would spark the establishment of the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation, now known as the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation, a comprehensive rehabilitation facility operated by the state of Georgia.

"The article is notable for many reasons, but mainly for the first time in three years, FDR said that he was able to move his right leg. He also commented on the beauty of the area and the hospitality he received, what he called 'the Spirit of Warm Springs.' He would come to rely upon these qualities, this spirit, for the next 21 years. The article and photographs showing Roosevelt’s shriveled legs were published in the October 26, 1924 issue of Sunday Magazine and was syndicated nationally. Unbeknownst to Roosevelt, people with polio across the country read the story with great interest. Shortly after the article was published, polio patients began to arrive, hoping to experience the 'the Spirit of Warm Springs.' The Warm Springs was such a huge success that FDR opened a polio therapeutic treatment center called the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation in 1926." ~ Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Spirit of Warm Springs - The National WII Museum

  Franklin Roosevelt swimming in the pool at Warm Springs, GA
Photo Credit: NPx: 74-20(457), FDR Presidential Library & Museum
FDR swimming in a Warm Springs, GA pool. October 1925.

On the eve of WWII, Franklin D. Roosevelt founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP), now known as the March of Dimes. This organization "pioneered the vaccine research leading to the eradication of polio in the U.S., then shifted focus to address the biggest health threats to moms and babies with innovations like folic acid, newborn screening, and surfactant therapy. Today, we serve as a convener to unite the nation and improve maternal and infant health in the U.S." ~ The March of Dimes legacy begins

Billboard sign with a child wearing a leg brace and sitting in a wheelchair. The billboard reads "I could be your child. Fight Infantile Paralysis. Celebrate Our President's Diamond Jubilee Birthday. January 30th. Send your gift to your chairman!"

Photo Credit: 93-15(4), FDR Presidential Library & Museum
Billboard sponsored by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (later March of Dimes). California, 1942.

FDR's disability was a significant challenge, but he refused to let it hold him back. He showed the world that people with disabilities can achieve great things and significantly contribute to society. 

Franklin D. Roosevelt was not the only president to have a disability. Here are a few Commander in Chiefs you might recognize.

  • George Washington - dyslexia
    1st President of the United States

  • Thomas Jefferson - stuttering and dyslexia
    3rd President of the United States

  • John F. Kennedy - ADHD, chronic pain
    35th President of the United States

  • William Jefferson Clinton - hearing impairment, wears hearing aids
    42nd President of the United States

  • Joe Biden - speech disorder and stuttering
    46th United States President



Maggie Vaughan, CPACC
Content Marketing Practitioner