DISABILITIES

By Daniel J. Vance

 

  The idea of a person with a disability being elected president of the United States may seem a bit farfetched to many Americans, especially given the physical demands of campaigning. But persons with disabilities have presided over our country, and they likely will again.

   Of course, most Americans know the story of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had polio in the 1920s. As a public figure he hid his disability and was elected governor of New York and president of the United States.

   Since 1972, there have been three presidential candidates with disabilities. George Wallace was paralyzed from the waist down after an assassination attempt, Bob Dole had a World War II injury, and in childhood Mo Udall lost an eye.

   Also, three current U.S. senators lost limbs in war action: Bob Kerrey, Daniel Inouye and Max Cleland.

    To this list add another well-known politician who had not one but two disabilities, with the first greatly contributing to his being elected president. He was Thomas Woodrow Wilson, son of a Presbyterian minister from Virginia.

  In childhood, Wilson was a poor student and non-reader at 10. Nearly all historians believe he had dyslexia.

  According to the International Dyslexia Association, dyslexia is a learning disability characterized by problems in "single word decoding" that are "unexpected in relation to age and other cognitive and academic abilities."

   For instance, a child with dyslexia may reverse words or letters in spelling, turning "dog" into "bog" or "tip" into "pit." They may also invert letters, such as "m" for "w" or transpose them as in "felt" for "left." Dyslexia affects 5 percent of Americans.

  Usually, persons with dyslexia have above-average intelligence. In Woodrow Wilson's case, though he was highly intelligent, his teachers thought he was slow. (Many children with dyslexia are branded as slow learners, and taunted by other children.)

  To help compensate for his son's learning disability, Woodrow's deeply religious father began drilling his son in the arts of debate and oratory, the mastery of which resulted in Wilson's illustrious political career. His father had helped turn a "curse" into a "blessing."

   Had Wilson not had dyslexia, he likely would not have been president.

  In 1919 President Wilson suffered a disabling stroke that paralyzed his left side. He never fully recovered, and his wife hid her husband's condition from the general public. As a result, Woodrow Wilson was the first and only president to juggle two disabilities simultaneously.

  [Daniel Vance's email is djv@mnic.net.]