The idea of a person with a disability being elected president of the United States may seem farfetched to some Americans, especially given the physical demands of campaigning. But persons with disabilities have presided over our country and likely will again.
Of course, most Americans already know the story of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who acquired polio in the 1920s. Though a public figure, he managed to hide his disability and become governor of New York and president of the United States.
Since 1972, at least three presidential candidates have had disabilities: George Wallace was paralyzed from the waist down after an assassination attempt; Bob Dole had a World War II arm injury; and Mo Udall lost an eye in childhood. Also, three recent U.S. Senators lost limbs in war: Bob Kerrey, Daniel Inouye and Max Cleland.
Add to these names another well-known politician, one who had two disabilities, with the first greatly helping him become president. He was Thomas Woodrow Wilson, son of a Presbyterian minister from Virginia.
Wilson couldn’t read much until age ten and was considered a poor student early on. 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 often reverses words or letters in spelling, turning “dog” into “bog” or “tip” into “pit.” He or she may also invert letters, such as “m” for “w” or transpose them as in “felt” for “left.” Dyslexia affects perhaps five percent of Americans.
Often, people with dyslexia have above-average intelligence. As for Woodrow Wilson, though he was highly intelligent, his intelligence went unrecognized by teachers. Many children with dyslexia are branded slow learners or taunted.
To help compensate for his son’s learning disability, Wilson’s father began training his son in debate and oratory, the mastery of which resulted in an illustrious political career. His father helped make good from what many people considered bad.
If not for having dyslexia, Wilson likely wouldn’t have been president.
In 1919 and while in office, President Wilson had a stroke paralyzing his left side. He never fully recovered and his wife successfully kept his condition hidden from the public. Woodrow Wilson was the first and only president to simultaneously juggle two disabilities.