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When OTs Wore White Shoes

Electing a President with a Disability

Published April 7, 2014 10:57 AM by Debra Karplus
When I was born, Harry Truman was finishing his term as US President .  Before Truman came one of America's most popular presidents, Franklin Roosevelt.  FDR served from 1933 until his death from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1945, having been elected four terms, leading to a presidency longer than anyone before or since.  FDR was widely respected for the legislation that rescued our country during the post-Depression era.

FDR was President in the years just before television. Back then, news was communicated via the daily newspaper, and presidential speeches were broadcast as people gathered around their home radios.  Most Americans were clueless that their beloved President used a wheelchair because of polio in 1921 causing permanent paralysis below his waist.  It's said that only two photos exist showing FDR in his wheelchair; during speeches he was photographed standing, but has actually "propped up" and not standing independently.

You may remember Thomas Eagleton, a rising star on the New York political scene in the 1970s. He was selected as Democratic vice Presidential candidate to George McGovern in his 1972 Democratic Presidential run. It was discovered that in the 1960s Eagleton had checked himself into a hospital and received two electroconvulsive therapy treatments for depression.  People believed his depression would interfere with his ability to function as the nation's VP and after eighteen days, he was quickly taken off the ticket.  McGovern didn't win anyway.  Eagleton returned to Congress; he died in 2007.

So, could a qualified candidate with a visible disability, like FDR in a wheelchair, be nominated and elected President in today's world?  Could someone with a disability that's not visible, such as Thomas Eagleton's depression, gain trust and respect to become our nation's leader?  It's really hard to know.  The country made a big fuss when our first African-American candidate became President.  He won the votes of people of color as well as others who felt he was the better candidate.

Imagine a respected state politician in a wheelchair, a paraplegic from an auto accident many years prior.  His political party wants him to run for President.  Would his chances of winning be better or worse or unaffected by his disability?  If he won, would his wife become a spokesperson for spinal cord injury, or would they try to disregard his disability as any factor in his potential as our nation's leader?

How would American's view a potential candidate with an invisible disability such as depression?  The Center for Disease Control (CDC) states the one in ten Adults suffer from depression.  So, statistically, four or five of our previous Presidents might have had depression. We may never know who!

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and actors such as Michael J. Fox, an advocate for person's with Parkinson's disease, or the late Christopher Reeves who supported research for spinal cord injury, gave disability less of a stigma.  Still, it's a mystery how the American public would view a candidate with a disability.

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posted by Debra Karplus
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