ADA 31: Progress And Priorities At The FDR Memorial
Annual celebrations of the Americans with Disabilities Act do more than honor the tireless advocacy and signature achievement of yesterday’s the disability community. At their best, ADA observances call attention to work still to be done, and the ever-renewing and strengthening disability community who will take over from those who came before.
This Monday, Sen Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), and other officials and disabled activists gathered at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, DC, for a wreath-laying event to honor disability activism, and reflect on the progress and unfinished business of disability rights.
The wreath-laying ceremony took place at the portion of the FDR Memorial where there is a life-size statue of President Roosevelt seated in his wheelchair –– and on July 26, 2021, the 31st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The event was organized by the FDR Memorial Legacy Committee of the National Council on Independent Living.
Sen. Duckworth and others in attendance recognized and connected the disability activism that achieved passage of the ADA in 1990, and that brought about the addition in 2001 of an FDR statue clearly depicting his disability to the FDR Memorial that opened in 1997.
“Thirty-one years ago,” Duckworth observed, “a thousand activists gathered close to this spot demanding that Congress finally give Americans with Disabilities the basic rights that the Constitution promised.” She was referring to an event that has come to be known in the disability community as “The Capitol Crawl.” As Duckworth described, “Dozens of those activists got up out of their wheelchairs, set down their crutches, and one inch at a time crawled up 83 steps of the Capitol building.“
It was disability activists once again who drove the successful drive to add an “FDR in a wheelchair” statue to the FDR Memorial –– a feature that had been deliberately left out of the original design.
“In 2001 the hard work, long days and even longer nights of a handful of activists paid off and our nation's 32nd president was finally portrayed as he lived,” said Duckworth, “as a man who uses a wheelchair.” Reflecting on what it meant to her as a disabled veteran and wheelchair user, injured in the Iraq War, she added, “Suddenly because of this memorial, having a disability was something to take pride in, something to take courage from, something to memorialize, to celebrate.”
In her own remarks at the wreath-laying, Congresswoman Norton also cited the importance of the ADA, and recognized the disability activists who “contributed to the deep authenticity of the FDR Memorial by ensuring that the Memorial depicted President Roosevelt in a wheelchair.”
Other speakers at the event also repeatedly mentioned the disability rights work that remains to be finished, and the next generations of activists who will take it on.
A Call For Better Accessibility At The FDR Memorial
Sen. Duckworth paid tribute to the commitment of those gathered at the wreath-laying. “This is a group that knows we could never ever accept the status quo until it accepts all of us.”
After the event, she outlined four critical improvements needed to make the FDR Memorial itself fully accessible. These are:
1. A mobile app audio and visual guide that visitors can use through their smart phones, to make the unique pathway and outdoor “rooms” configuration of the FDR Memorial more navigable. Such an application could be customized for whatever a person’s specific accessibility needs might be.
2. Update the site’s brochure to conform to current Braille standards and layout. Braille presented at the site now isn’t in the right format. Duckworth describes it as, “very artistic, but not functional.”
3. Addition of interpretive panels in each section, in print and properly formatted, reachable Braille.
4. Installation of guardrails around the memorial’s several fountains, which are currently a physical hazard for blind and visually impaired visitors.
Sen. Duckworth says she has sent a letter calling for these changes to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, and spoken with her about them as well. She is pleased that the secretary has “shown commitment” to addressing these issues at the FDR Memorial.
Choice of Day and Location
The anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act was a natural choice for this ceremony. The ADA was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990.
The ADA outlaws discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, state and local government, public accommodations, and telecommunications. In addition to setting detailed accessibility standards for built environments, the ADA also affirms and provides guidance on disabled people’s right to “reasonable accommodations” when needed to achieve equal, integrated opportunity and service. Although full implementation and enforcement remains a struggle, the scope and concepts of the ADA have helped shape the progress of disability rights in the U.S. and around the world.
The wreath-laying event itself honors President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the United States’ longest serving President, who was a full-time wheelchair user throughout his Presidency, through the Great Depression and the Second World War.
Roosevelt contracted Polio while he was already well into his political career. He had previously served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. He returned to politics much recovered but still significantly disabled. Roosevelt never walked unaided again and used a wheelchair every day.
There are varying accounts and interpretations of how open Roosevelt was about his disability, and about the efforts he, his family, and political allies made to hide it. It is certainly true that the stigma of disability during the 1930s and ‘40s meant that he felt he couldn’t publicly acknowledge the extent of his impairments, or allow himself to be seen fully and openly as a disabled man in a wheelchair.
At the same time, most people knew he had gone through Polio, and what Polio could do. And the hundreds of people who worked with him clearly knew that disability was a daily part of President Roosevent’s life and routine.
Memorial Opened in 1997
The FDR Memorial originally included just one depiction of President Roosevelt, which did not include a wheelchair, except for very hidden rear casters of a wheelchair, present but deliberately barely visible.
Almost immediately there were strong calls from the disability community to add a depiction of FDR more clearly in a wheelchair. Initially there was resistance to the idea. Some argued that since FDR himself took steps to hide his disability, it would be disrespectful to depict him in a wheelchair in such a public setting.
But historians who study FDR and his disability paint a more complicated picture of how Roosevelt dealt with his disability and how it would have been understood by the voting public. In the end, historical accuracy, dedicated activism, and the value of disability representation won out.
An FDR Wheelchair Statue
The statue of President Roosevelt in a wheelchair was designed and installed by sculptors Robert Graham and his son Steven. Steven Graham was also in attendance at Monday’s ceremony.
Steven Graham was “thrilled and honored” to attend the July 26 event, and reflected on the meaning and value of the wheelchair statue his father designed and he helped install. He notes that his father had a working relationship with the FDR Memorial’s chief architect Lawrence Halprin, which helped make Graham the choice to create the statue, once the decision to add it was made and funds raised.
Graham designed and placed the statue intentionally to be life sized, realistic, and physically approachable. “Representation was the focus,” said Steven Graham. He also emphasized the statue’s “intimacy,” and pointed out that Roosevelt himself was “larger than life,” both physically and in people’s imaginations. But the statue is designed to depict him as “a real person.”
Graham also noted that 20 years later the statue is covered in shiny spots where visitors have touched it. This was also intentional, and may help people not only feel more closely connected to the historical figure, but more in touch with both the reality and relatable humanity of his disability.
The statue is also historically accurate. The wheelchair depicted is modeled after the personally modified ones Roosevelt used –– not off-the-shelf medical wheelchairs, but designs of his own made of ordinary kitchen chairs with custom wheels attached. His wheelchairs were also narrower than standard, to make them easier to pass through White House corridors and doorways. The Roosevelt family loaned Graham one of the wheelchairs, along with other personal items, to ensure this faithful depiction.
The Memorial itself is an open-air experience, with four “rooms” representing FDR’s four Presidential terms, connected by pathways. Thus the site is designed to be navigable, which is why accessibility must be such an integral part of it, and why it’s so important to make it even more accessible to everyone than it is now.
Accessibility At Other Historic Sites
In discussion after the ceremony, Sen. Duckworth noted at least one other major historic site in the capital with ongoing accessibility problems. She said that she hasn’t been able to thoroughly visit the Lincoln Memorial since she became disabled. While there is an elevator to bypass the Memorial’s iconic steps, it’s often broken and unusable.
This is a particularly painful barrier, as Duckworth is a Senator from Lincoln’s home state, Illinois. And she knows of many “Honor Flight” veterans with disabilities who haven’t been able to reliably visit and enjoy the Lincoln Memorial either, despite being a favorite destination for Honor Flight visitors to DC.
Sen. Duckworth also discussed the ongoing need to defend the Americans with Disabilities Act from recurrent attacks and push forward on other improvements on accessibility and disability rights.
Even after 31 years, attacks on the law continue, including in the last Congress, where a bill that would have weakened already limited enforcement passed the House. Business associations are still fighting the ADA as well. Sen. Duckworth specifically cited opposition from shopping malls, retail organizations, and hotel chains. She says they have misconceptions about the ADA and lawsuits, what they mean and where they come from.
In addition, airlines still mishandle wheelchairs, an issue which Duckworth helped start to address with a law requiring airlines to document damaged and lost wheelchairs. And schools still sometimes argue against providing accommodations to students, saying it’s unfair to non-disabled students, signs of a fundamental misunderstanding of disability access and accommodation.
It’s all important, and not just for people who presently have a disability. As Duckworth commented, as more people are fortunate enough to reach advanced age, more of them will experience disabilities. “I hope everyone lives long enough to gain a disability,” she said at the wreath-laying. “Then you’ll appreciate those handicapped parking spaces!”
By: Andrew Pulrang
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