FDR in Wheelchair a 'Monument to Freedom'

Calling it "a monument to freedom," President Clinton today dedicated a bronze statue of Franklin D. Roosevelt that clearly shows the former president sitting in the wheelchair that he himself designed to be unobtrusive.

The statue, which sits at the entrance to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial in Potomac Park, makes apparent what Roosevelt tried to conceal throughout his life - the fact that he was afflicted with polio.

Some of his descendents at first objected to the plans to depict the president in a way that made it obvious he was sitting in a wheelchair, but most have since come to agree with the groups that support people with disabilities, who see Roosevelt as an inspiration.

"It was a shame, disgrace and embarrassment to have his wheelchair hidden in this memorial when in fact he used it every day of his life," said Alan Reich, president of the National Organization on Disability, which spearheaded the initiative.

The original statue at the 3 ½-year-old memorial shows him covered with a cape in a straight chair with two tiny wheels behind, but the new statue vividly illustrates how the four-term president privately dealt with his disability.

"It is grand and beautiful, all right, but it is so accessible in a way that, I think, would have pleased President Roosevelt and Mrs. Roosevelt," Clinton said. "The power of the statue is in its immediacy, and its reminder for all who touch, who see, who wheel and walk around, that they, too, are free.

"It's a monument to freedom," he said.

A Monument for the Future

Though his achievements make a Roosevelt an example for those who champion the cause of people with disabilities, in his life he tried to draw as little attention as possible to his condition, fearing that it would hurt his political career. He was rarely photographed in his wheelchair and asked the media to avoid mentioning that he was stricken with polio, a request that was largely respected.

The new statue might seem to violate Roosevelt's wishes, but at least one member of his family agreed that it was important for people to see that the four-term president who led the country out of the depression and during World War II was largely confined to a wheelchair.

"When you build a memorial, you build it not because the person wanted it but for the future, for generations who didn't know the man and didn't know the era in which he lived," his granddaughter Ann Roosevelt said.

The statue joins an existing 7.5-acre monument to the author of the New Deal featuring shade trees, waterfalls and statues of Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor.

The memorial features four outdoor rooms where tourists can explore major events of the Roosevelt years, from the Great Depression to World War II.

Disability groups raised $1.65 million for the structure, starting with $378.50 from a bake sale in a New Jersey elementary school. The National Park Service agreed to add it in July 1998 after numerous protests and complaints.

Lawrence Halprin, who designed the Roosevelt Memorial, has said the addition will complement the display, spread between the Potomac River and the rim of the Tidal Basin.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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