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A Tribute To A Disabled Leader

When Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, he went to great pains to hide the paralysis from polio that required him to use a wheelchair. But his memorial will have a new bronze sculpture that portrays him in the small wheelchair he designed.

The National Park Service will add the sculpture after protests from activists for the disabled that the memorial, which opened a year ago in May, didn't do enough to recognize Roosevelt's disability.

"In the 1920s and 1930s, if you were an invalid you were supposed to stay home. It was bad taste to be seen in public," said author Hugh Gregory Gallagher, who wrote about Roosevelt's disability in FDR's Splendid Deception.

"If he had appeared campaigning in his wheelchair, the only message people would have heard was that he's in a wheelchair."

But times have changed, and Clinton administration officials Thursday hoped the sculpture would satisfy activists' demands that the memorial recognize FDR's disability.

"This agreement will serve both as a tribute to a true American hero who led our nation through its darkest days and reminds us that disability is not a barrier to achievement," Vice President Al Gore said.

Activists called the decision historically accurate and a powerful inspiration for the disabled.

"We're very pleased. We're anxious to get it there," said Jim Dickson, director of community affairs of the National Organization on Disability, which led the campaign for the sculpture. "We need this statue to tell all the children with disabilities and all their parents that anything is possible."

Mike DeLand, chairman of the board of the organization, said the decision was "a victory for 54 million disabled people in this country and a half billion disabled people worldwide."

Lawrence Halprin, who designed the Roosevelt Memorial, said he is comfortable that the new sculpture will blend well with the memorial, which is spread over a 7.5-acre site between the Potomac River and the rim of the Tidal Basin. It has four open "rooms" that tell the story of Roosevelt's four terms in office, and the new sculpture will serve as a prologue, Halprin said.

The addition will be paid for with private money raised by the National Organization on Disability.

The memorial's original design has few obvious signs of FDR's disability, although the centerpiece sculpture portrays him seated, his Scottish terrier Fala at his side, in the wheeled straight chair in which he normally was pictured. His cape covers the chair, but the small wheels on the chair's back legs are visible from the rear.

David Roosevelt, grandson of the former president, was initially opposed to the addition and remains skeptical that "a memorial like this should be used to make a social statement." But he said he understands the need to promote the disabled cause.

Roosevelt, chief executive of a charitable foudation in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, recalled his grandmother, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, talking about a sculpture of her husband planned in England and saying her husband shouldn't be shown as disabled because that's not what he would have wanted.

Written by Will Lester