He contracted polio at age 39 which left him unable to walk or stand unassisted. He was a daily wheelchair user. He started the March of Dimes to fund a cure for polio. He frequented Warm Springs, GA for its therapeutic waters and helped pioneer rehabilitation practices.
He visited wounded veterans while remaining in his wheelchair, was purposefully carried out of his car in full view of the study body at Howard University, and referred to “ten pounds of steel” on his legs in an address to the U.S. Congress.