FDR – Discussion at Faculty of Political Science, University of Belgrade

A few weeks ago, I took part in discussion with two University of Belgrade professors, Nikola Samardžić and Stefan Surlić, at the book launch of the autobiography of Theodore Roosevelt.  Theodore Roosevelt, our 26th President, was a Republican, as you may know.  I am glad to have chance today to talk about his cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, our 32nd President.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a Democrat.  (This way, I won’t be accused of favoring one party or another.)

American scholars normally rank Franklin Roosevelt as one of the best American Presidents, right alongside founding father George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, who led my country during our bloody Civil War.

Franklin Roosevelt served longer than any other President in American history.  He was elected four times, rescued the country from the Great Depression, and led the United States through most of World War II.  But at the age of 39, he was struck down by paralysis that left him confined to a wheel chair for the rest of his life.

Today’s talk gains its impetus from a project of the Ministry of Labor and Color Media Communications to focus attention on the accomplishments of persons with disabilities from Serbia, from the U.S., and from around the globe.  These are people of exceptional talent who overcame some physical incapacity, or learning disorder, or some other challenge in their lives and scored notable successes in their fields.

Some Americans with disabilities, including many highlighted in this project, might already be known to you.  There’s the educator Helen Keller who was deaf, and musicians Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder who were blind.  Others might be less well known, including the impressive scientist Temple Grandin, who has autism.  And of course, there’s also Franklin Roosevelt.

I’m not a Presidential historian, so I’ll let the real scholars on stage do the hard work today.  But I will say that, in his time, people with disabilities were rarely visible, often hidden out of sight or confined to menial tasks.  Roosevelt, one of the most gifted politicians in the history of our nation, went to great troubles to hide his affliction, and rarely allowed himself to be photographed in a wheelchair.  He learned to stand upright and even walk with the help of heavy steel braces, and became America’s first communications-savvy President, providing weekly “fireside chats” to the people of the country — via radio.

He was clearly a very talented man, even before his paralysis.  He had already won election as a Senator in the State of New York, and served as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, before being selected to run as Vice Presidential candidate supporting Democratic candidate for President James Cox.  (He lost, by the way.)  But it was undoubtedly his health crisis that molded the man he was to become.  He worked tirelessly to overcome a serious disability with a tenacity and determination that few could have mustered.  He did so with the help of a support team of family, physicians and therapists who are frequently the unsung heroes in most inspirational stories about disabled people.  And that, perhaps, brings us to today, and a chance to speak about the more recent progress made in the area of the rights of the disabled, both in the U.S. and in Serbia.

Roosevelt came from a wealthy family.  He had the resources at his disposal for therapy and recovery.  Unfortunately, not every citizen is as privileged.  That is why, in my country, the defining moment in pursuing the rights of disabled persons was the adoption of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.  That law is not a social program overseen by our equivalent of the Ministry of Labor, Social and Veterans Affairs.  Instead, it is a civil rights law, enforced by our Attorney General.  It is a law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. The purpose of the law is to make sure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. The ADA gives civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities similar to those provided to individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age, and religion.

On a practical basis, it instituted new requirements for employers to make reasonable accommodations so that capable individuals with disabilities could take a job and make a living.  It requires public buildings to be accessible to people in wheelchairs.  It led to a new philosophy in education that takes an inclusive approach, bringing students with disabilities into the classroom with the rest of the students whenever possible, from elementary school on up.  Today, in my country, we can see people with disabilities in a broad range of professions and roles that would have been unimaginable in Franklin Roosevelt’s era.

Over the years, the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade has been proud to work with various Serbian government offices, organizations, and individuals on disability issues, just like we do in other countries.  For example:

  • Dragana Rodic is an alumna of our Community Connections exchange program. Confined to a wheelchair herself since 1999, Dragana works to improve the everyday life of disabled people in Nis both as a chairperson of an NGO working on disability issues, and as an employee of Nis University Career Development Center.
  • Marko Ristic is an alumnus of both Community Connections and the State Department’s Global Sports Mentoring Program. His organization runs a sport camp for the disabled children as well as kids from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.  The U.S. Embassy is also proud of our past support to efforts by Special Olympics International in Serbia to promote inclusion of young persons with disabilities in sports activities.
  • Of course, we continue to work closely with Brankica Jankovic, the Commissioner for Protection of Equality, and her team, who have made disabled rights one of their key areas of focus.
  • GordanaRajkov was a Member of Parliament and is also Director of the Center for Independent Living Serbia (CILS).  She is a fierce defender of the rights of the disabled in this country. As a result of her efforts, Serbia has a Disability Caucus within the National Parliament and small steps have been taken towards improving voting accesibility and general realization of political rights of persons with disabilities.

These people and their organizations are trailblazers, helping to make Serbia a place where each and every person will be able to achieve his or her true potential, and make his or her mark on the world.  Franklin D. Roosevelt was a pioneer in my country in demonstrating that even people facing severe disabilities and challenges can achieve great things.  In the same manner, the next Nikola Tesla or Mihajlo Pupin could well come from the disabled community. That’s why we need to nurture every talent, in every individual.

I look forward to discussing this and other issues related to Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Question and answer period, but for now

Dragan Simić, I think the floor is yours now.