Disabled Lawmakers and Their Contributions

Ever wonder whether more could be accomplished on behalf of disabled people if the lawmakers themselves had disabilities? Here’s a list of four such politicians that live and have lived with all manner of limitations while in public service along with their contributions to the disabled community.

Tony Coelho (b. 1942)

He served as a member of the US House of Representatives from California’s 15th District from 1979 to 1989. At age 15, he sustained a head injury in a truck accident that caused the onset of epilepsy. He was the primary sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) and has worked intensely as an activist for disability rights ever since.

Tammy Duckworth (b. 1968)

A retired US Army Lieutenant Colonel, she has served as a junior senator from Illinois since 2017, having previously served as a representative (Illinois 8th District) from 2013-2017. An Iraq War veteran and Army helicopter pilot, she lost both legs and injured an arm in combat. She retired from the Army in 2014. She was Head of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs and helped establish the Intrepid Foundation to help injured veterans. Retired Senator Bob Dole, himself a disabled war veteran, dedicated his memoir in part to Duckworth. She cites him as an inspiration to go into politics while she was recuperating from her injuries.

Bob Dole (b. 1923)

Retired senator from Kansas, Bob Dole saw action in Europe during WWII and was badly wounded in the back and arm by German machine gun fire in April, 1945. To hide his disability while serving in the Senate, he always held a pen in the wounded hand. He ran for president against Bill Clinton in 1996 and retired from public service after his defeat. In 2007, he acted as a co-chair of the commission to investigate problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. In 2012, he made a Senate session appearance to support ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Senate rejected the treaty by a vote of 61–38.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945)

He took office in January, 1933 and died during his fourth term as President of the United States in April 1945, weeks before WWII ended in Europe. In 1921 at age 39, he became paralyzed from the waist down and used a wheelchair exclusively from then on. At the time, doctors diagnosed him with polio, but later opinions considered a differential diagnosis of Guillain-Barre syndrome.  Although his disability was easily covered up— he mainly communicated with the public via radio broadcasts as television wasn’t yet part of popular media—
it was not a secret.

His direct contribution to medical research was made before his presidency and a few years after his polio diagnosis. A scion of old money, he used most of his inheritance to establish a hydrotherapy rehab facility in Warm Springs, Georgia and contributed to polio vaccine research with the latter becoming available to the public in 1955. The New Deal remains his best-known legacy, a series of laws that began during his first 100 days in office that brought emergency relief and banking regulations during the early years of the Great Depression, setting the country on a recovery track. Perhaps his best-loved act was his first as president: the end of Prohibition. Legalizing alcohol brought in tax revenues and ended a 12-year dry period during which gangsters got rich selling bootleg liquor. Being a Scotch drinker myself, I thank FDR for that not-so-small gesture.

For more information on politicians with disabilities, see the Wikipedia List of Physically Disabled Politicians in the United States link in the References section below.

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