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Americans With Disabilities Act

President Roosevelt in his wheelchair on the porch at Top Cottage in Hyde Park, NY with Ruthie Bie and Fala. February 1941.

President Roosevelt in his wheelchair on the porch at Top Cottage in Hyde Park, NY with Ruthie Bie and Fala. February 1941.

To commemorate the 22nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the National Archives is featuring Presidential records related to disability history on a new web research page. Following that theme, below is a brief description of how FDR’s disability affected the design of his private retreat and of the first Presidential Library.

The FDR Library Building

The FDR Library was conceived and built under President Roosevelt’s direction during 1939-41 on 16 acres of land in Hyde Park, New York. Roosevelt decided that a dedicated facility was needed to house the vast quantity of historical papers, books, and memorabilia he had accumulated during a lifetime of public service and private collecting.

FDR considered himself to be an amateur architect, and was intimately involved in the design of the Library. He was particularly fond of the Hudson Valley Dutch Colonial style of architecture, and the Library was built in this fashion. The building provided not only museum space for visitors and a formal office for FDR but also storage areas for FDR’s vast collections.

Because a 1921 attack of polio had left Roosevelt paralyzed from the waist down, FDR  primarily used personally-designed wheelchairs for daily mobility. Since he intended to personally and regularly use the vast collection of papers and manuscripts housed in the archives at the Library, he made sure the storage area aisles were built wide enough to accommodate his wheelchair. He also personally designed the document storage boxes initially used to house his papers. To enable his own lap-top style reading while in the storage areas, a special box type was created that could lie flat on the shelf, open in a clam-shell fashion, and act as a sort of paper tray. For preservation purposes, these boxes have since been replaced with newer, acid-free archival containers, but FDR’s original shelving remains in place in many parts of the Library storage areas.

Historic view of FDR Library Archival Stacks

An archivist at work in the FDR Library archival stacks, circa 1950s. The document boxes were designed by FDR.

Historic view of FDR Library Archival Stacks

Historic view of FDR Library archival stacks, featuring the original document boxes. FDR’s carefully arranged shelving remains in place in some areas of the Library today.

Top Cottage

Architectural design to accommodate FDR’s disability is also seen at Top Cottage, the Dutch Colonial style retreat FDR built for himself in 1938. FDR played a large role in the design of the building, which features a number of accommodations for FDR’s wheelchair. There are no steps to the first floor of the cottage, and a natural earthen ramp was built off the porch to provide access. Within the cottage, there are no thresholds on any of the doorways that might prohibit FDR from easily accessing any of the rooms, and all of the windows inside were built lower to the ground to give FDR clear views of the outside.

Architect's drawing of To Cottage exterior

Architect’s drawing of Top Cottage exterior

Top Cottage blueprint with FDR's handwritten notations

Top Cottage blueprint with FDR’s handwritten notations

View of the Top Cottage drawing room interior, 1945

View of the Top Cottage drawing room interior, 1945

Find more information about about FDR and polio on our Library’s official website.

Infantile Paralysis Wishing Well (MO 1943.161.5)

In 1921, at the age of 39, Franklin Roosevelt contracted polio and became paralyzed from the waist down. For the rest of his life, FDR was committed to finding a way to rehabilitate himself as well as others afflicted with infantile paralysis. In 1934, Roosevelt began using the occasion of his birthday each year  to encourage Americans to throw “Birthday Balls” to help raise funds for his Georgia Warm Springs Foundation, which facilitated polio rehabilitation at the center he had established in Warm Springs in 1927.

In 1938, FDR created the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to support the rehabilitation center at Warm Springs and also to aid the victims of polio throughout the country. To increase awareness of the Foundation’s campaign, radio personality and philanthropist Eddie Cantor took to the air waves and urged Americans to send their loose change to President Roosevelt in “a march of dimes to reach all the way to the White House.”

Soon, millions of dimes flooded the White House. In 1945, the annual March of Dimes campaign raised $18.9 million for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. The March of Dimes (as the National Foundation became known) financially supported the research and development of a polio vaccine by Jonas Salk in 1955, eradicating the disease throughout most of the world by the 1960s.

This copper wishing well was a birthday gift to the President that celebrated his philanthropic efforts. The roof of the little well house is inscribed: “Celebrate The President’s Birthday, Fight Infantile Paralysis, ‘Make A Wish, It’s Sure To Come True’.” Its base is inscribed: “To The Greatest Fighter Of All, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Whose Example Has Been An Inspiration To Thousands Of Victims Of This Dreaded Scourge”; “A Gift From Dan Marovich, Director Northern California Committee, To Celebrate The President’s Birthday.”

To learn more about the March of Dimes Foundation, please visit: http://www.marchofdimes.com


January 8, 1958

“NEW YORK—I came home from Warm Springs, Ga., and the 20th anniversary celebration of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis with a feeling of great hope. I was delighted that the foundation looks upon its present achievements not as an ending, but as a beginning, and my hope is that it will succeed as well in the next 20 years as it has in the first.

I remember well the beginning of the foundation, and sometimes it seems just a short time ago. So much has been accomplished in 20 years. Through an appeal that reached the hearts of fathers and mothers, the people of the United States, through the March of Dimes, have made it possible for the foundation to finance research and to give scholarships—7,000 of them—to young promising students so they could train for their specialty in science and care for polio patients.

It was through one of these scholarships that Dr. Jonas Salk became a virologist, so it seemed especially fitting that he should be the one finally to give us the vaccine that has practically removed the fear of crippling paralysis.

No vaccine is, of course, 100 percent effective. Some individuals will not react to the Salk vaccine, but by and large the drop in crippling paralysis since children have been vaccinated with it has proved the vaccine almost 99 percent effective.”

Click here for the complete My Day article.

January 3, 1938: FDR establishes the March of Dimes. The original name for this organization was the National Foundation of Infantile Paralysis.

Franklin D. Roosevelt waving a check representing the proceeds from the first Birthday Ball in the White House.
February 1, 1934
FDR Library Photo Collection. NPx. 82-71(20).

December 31, 1948

“NEW YORK, Thursday—…Yesterday I was presented with the “1949 Dime Hat,” which was designed and created by Dorothy Gordon to commemorate the new March of Dimes Campaign for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. The brim of the hat is turned up on the left side and under the basket weave of the felt, dimes are inserted; many more dimes are tucked into slits in the crown—more than 400 dimes in all, which will be turned over to the National Foundation. I was delighted to accept Miss Gordon’s creation, but I must say I am glad I won’t have to wear it, for its weight would be a matter of considerable discomfort.”

Click here for the complete My Day article.

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