Did President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's personal experience with disability influence him to support disability-friendly legislation during his four terms in office?

Psychologist Daniel Holland, PhD, thinks so. The University of Arkansas at Little Rock professor is using a grant-in-aid from the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute to answer that question, as well as to combine psychology with historical research to better understand American disability history.

Lately, Holland has been visiting the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, N.Y., and the tiny town of Warm Springs, Ga., which is home to the Roosevelt Institute for Rehabilitation. Roosevelt founded the institute in 1927 as part of a community for people with disabilities. Today, it's a state-managed hospital that contains an archive of historical documents from Roosevelt's time there. Holland has scoured its holdings to see if Roosevelt's experience with disability contributed to his perspectives and priorities in American social policies.

"When FDR founded Warm Springs, disability and sickness were conflated in the public mind," Holland says. "FDR parsed those things apart at Warm Springs and said that a person with a disability can pursue optimal health just like anyone else--they just need a psychologically healthy environment in which to do it. That was absolutely revolutionary thinking for 1927."

Warm Springs residents with disabilities exercised in mineral waters, worked together to devise new exercises, put on theatrical plays, picnicked together and, says Holland, benefited psychologically by being members of a community that they directed, not patients in an institution where they were directed by others.

Holland says Roosevelt's promotion of the New Deal stemmed in part from his experience with a disability. Interdisciplinary research that combines psychology, history and politics to understand perspectives like Roosevelt's can help the public's view of disability, he adds.

"By showing that policy-makers' direct experience with disability resulted in more meaningful and successful social policy, psychologists' historical research can destigmatize disability," Holland explains. "If people understood that these experiences provide policy-makers with insights and advantages, then having those experiences becomes not a stigma but a strength."

--M. GREER