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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.

July 3, 1945

“HYDE PARK, Monday—Last week I went to the office of the American Federation for the Blind to receive the resolution which their board had passed and which Miss Helen Keller wanted to present to me personally. It was a resolution commemorating my husband’s services as honorary chairman. As I stood and listened to Miss Keller speak, I thought how wonderfully both Miss Keller and my husband typified the triumph over physical handicap.

Many of you may not know that Miss Keller, with her faithful friend and interpreter, has visited a number of our service hospitals. Some people felt that she might discourage our wounded men. Instead of that, the men recognized the greatness of her personality and the serene and courageous spirit which has made of her life a rich and full existence. She carried comfort to the men who were facing their own handicaps and trying to find the courage to build normal lives in spite of them.

* * *

I always found in hospitals that the knowledge among the men that my husband, who was their Commander in Chief and the President of the United States, nevertheless could not walk gave to every handicapped man a sense of greater determination in his own fight back to useful activity.

The presentation was a moving little ceremony and I was grateful to the board and to Miss Keller, for, in spite of the fact that my husband had little time to give to many of his interests, it still gave him a great satisfaction to be associated with their work. He managed to read their reports and to know what was going on, no matter how heavy were the cares of state…”

Click here for the complete My Day article.

From the Mountains of Clay County, Kentucky

“I am a cripple, a Veteran of the Spanish-American war and the father of three boys in the Armed Forces. I have a feeling that the pride engendered by carrying one of your canes, a cane from your collection, preferably one you had carried and discarded, would vastly improve my stride.” – Joseph L. Delph to FDR, April 5, 1943.

Throughout his Presidency, FDR received thousands of letters from the general public. Americans shared their reactions to Roosevelt’s speeches and policies, requested action on political issues, expressed support or voiced concern over the President’s approach to the New Deal and to the war effort. Some even requested financial or material support for themselves and their families.

Many of the letters were very personal in nature and the FDR administration made it a point to respond accordingly. Mr. Delph of Kentucky not only received a personal response from Grace Tully, FDR’s personal secretary, but one of President Roosevelt’s canes, as well. Delph wrote back, “Your gift to me is something that money could not buy. I shall carry it with much pride and it shall ever remain one of my most cherished possessions.”

Read all four pages of correspondence related to this 1943 cane request. Materials were reproduced from FDR’s President’s Personal File (PPF) 50-d: Congratulations, 1943.

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