During the process of investigating the history of the treatment of disabled people, I came across some facts which bring to light the unequal treatment of people with disabilities. For most of the twentieth century, erasure of people with disabilities has historically been achieved through cultural practices, such as institutionalization, isolation, genocide, concealment, segregation, exile, eugenics, quarantine, and prosthetic masking.
Under Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime, a mass eradication of disabled people was enacted. The regime’s first victims were more than a quarter of million children and adults in Germany and its occupied territories. Public health agencies, private physicians, schools and treatment centers were obliged to report every person with a disability. Once turned over, they either were killed or used as test subjects for various unorthodox and cruel experiments by the science factions of the Nazi regime. These experiments involved bizarre and inhumane acts as forcibly removing a person’s teeth, removing the blood from someone and replacing it with gasoline, and various cruel genetic experiments. Along with Blacks, Hispanics, Jews, and homosexuals, disabled people did not meet the race requirements of Nazi Germany. They were either cleansed from society by genocide or given to science for such experiments.
At the same time, in North America, popular culture response to disability was gaining headway. A fascinating character in his approach to his own disability, Franklin D. Roosevelt was quoted by his physical therapist as saying this: "I'll walk without crutches. I'll walk into a room without scaring everybody half to death. I'll stand easily enough in front of people so that they'll forget I'm a cripple." He made a point to present himself as non-disabled to the general public. There was a two-pronged philosophy he enacted to hide his disability, applying these to all the appearances he made in media journalism and public events. His first was to carry the self-confidence associated with leading figures in politics; and second was to avoid disrupting visual expectations of bodily normalcy. His determinations are speculated to be informed the negative visual rhetoric of people with disabilities in Nazi Germany. Pro-Nazi American papers used F.D. Roosevelt’s disability as leverage for their own lobbying during the war.
More than half a century after the longest-serving president devised his strategy for success, the development of the mass media and above all of television makes it impossible for public figures to hide a visible disability in the same way.
Interestingly, Roosevelt’s political life was not only portrayed via the news media. The film Sunrise at Campobello (1960) follows Roosevelt from the time he contracts polio, to his faltered walking, to the speech that began his career in politics. Although Roosevelt hid his disability from the American public, Roosevelt performed his duties from his wheelchair.