3. Franklin Roosevelt’s paralysis was so secret that even the heads of state of Europe were not aware of his condition
Franklin D. Roosevelt, the future 32nd President of the United States, contracted a paralytic illness in 1921 at the age of just 39 years old; debilitating symptoms soon followed, including bowel and bladder dysfunction, numbness, and permanent below-the-waist paralysis. Diagnosed with poliomyelitis, it is today commonly believed that his symptoms were more in line with the autoimmune neuropathy Guillain-Barré syndrome. Despite being unable to stand or walk without support, Roosevelt refused to allow his disability to impede his life or career, learning throughout the 1920s to walk short distances with the aid of heavy steel braces which locked at the knees, a cane for support, and using his torso to build forward momentum. As a result of this momentous personal struggle, Roosevelt successfully became America’s first disabled President without widespread public knowledge of his condition.
Although he used a wheelchair in private, Roosevelt remained careful to ensure the public did not see their commander-in-chief in such a state. When appearing in public, Roosevelt would often be flanked by aides for support, whilst during major speaking engagements a sturdy lectern would be placed on the stage. Roosevelt would grip the lectern forcefully for support, rendering him unable to use hand gestures and consequently developed his iconic head movements to apply emphasis. Arrivals by car were carefully choreographed, commonly parked in a secluded garage to allow for assistance entering and exiting the vehicle, or driven onto a ramp to ease his movements. If steps were present, they would be covered with a ramp and railings fitted on either side. Roosevelt also made extensive use of Track 61 – a private railway platform located beneath the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City – with the presidential railroad car always appearing at the rear and preferably arriving in a secluded section of a railway yard.