Disability Representation: It Matters

  • Aug - 27 - 2020
  • Meg O'Connell

Representation Matters. I say it all the time. So, I thought it important to discuss in this month’s blog.

1. First and foremost, we must have authentic representation of people and their lives. We can no longer tolerate stories that depict people by their color, ability, or cultural stereotypes.

2. Second, if you see someone “like you” in a position you aspire to, you begin to believe you can achieve it. You will be less likely to believe the voices that say you don’t belong.

We can all agree 2020 has changed us. It’s caused us to re-examine many things in our lives. At the heart of this year, it has brought pivotal conversations about representation, equity, and inclusion for people of color. As the world examines how we treat one another, and we do the work to address bias, and define what we expect, we must think about who else is being left out. Expanding on the Black Lives Matter movement, we need to address inclusion and representation holistically.

This means we cannot leave people with disabilities behind when we address civil rights, inclusion, equality, and access. People with disabilities must be included in what’s next.

Two months ago, I was asked to join the FDR Memorial Legacy Committee. The FDR Memorial is one of the most recognized monuments in Washington, DC. It is a tribute to the man who is arguably one of our finest Presidents, the only president to serve four terms, who helped us out of WWII and the Great Depression, and who did it all from a wheelchair.

When the seven-acre memorial was completed in 1997, it lacked any representation of FDR as a wheelchair user.

The National Organization on Disability, along with 50 other disability organizations, fought to ensure accurate representation of FDR as a person with a disability. This epic fight by disability community leaders led to legislation being passed to commission a new statue of FDR in a wheelchair. In 2001, the new statue was unveiled with much fanfare.

The FDR memorial is incredibly important to the disability community because it lets children and adults “see themselves” as a leader, as someone who was smart, capable, and helped solve some of our nation’s biggest problems. The representation of FDR in a wheelchair matters not just to people with disabilities but to those without disabilities. They, too, will learn about FDR’s leadership and understand that his disability did not stop him from doing great things.

The problem we face now is the memorial has fallen into a state of disrepair. Many of the features of the memorial aren’t working, there is inadequate Braille, there are accessibility issues for those with, and there is a lack of educational materials on FDR’s disability and the historic fight the disability community-led to ensure representation of FDR as a wheelchair user.

Collage of photos from FDR Memorial. Far left is Mike Deland speaking. Middle is boy in wheelchair next to FDR wheelchair status. Far right is FDR Memorial maintenance issues.

As we move forward in working to increase disability representation, we must preserve the images and statues of the disability leaders who have come before us. We must preserve the images of disability and great accomplishment.

The FDR Memorial Legacy Committee is fighting to preserve the memorial and create educational materials. We have started a petition to request the National Park Service and the National Park Foundation to repair the memorial and work on developing educational materials for the public

Please join us in our mission to preserve the memorial and educate people on FDR, his leadership, and disability. Because representation really does matter.