On September 18, 2020, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial opened on Independence Avenue in front of the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C. This memorial joins other D.C.-area memorials of Presidents with disabilities, including Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial even features a statue of Roosevelt, who suffered from polio and tried to hide his disability, in a wheelchair. However, the Eisenhower memorial is important for its recognition of a President with an invisible disability.
President Eisenhower had a learning disability, which he did not let stand in his way. Before becoming President, he had a notable career of military and government service. He led the Allied forces during World War II’s D-Day on June 6, 1944. Later, he served as President of Columbia University – an accomplishment nonetheless impressive considering his learning disability – and served as the first Supreme Commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Between 1953 and 1961, he was the 34th President of the United States. Notable accomplishments during his Presidency include creating Alaska and Hawaii as states, supporting the formation of the Interstate Highway System, signing the 1957 Civil Rights Act (the first such legislation since the 1800s), and signing the law to form the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He also signed a major expansion of the Social Security Act, “a start toward increasing from 60,000 to 200,000 by 1959, the number of disabled people rehabilitated each year.” He expanded this act to include disability insurance benefits for workers with disabilities who are at least 50 years old. This new Eisenhower Memorial, located near the U.S. Capitol, depicts Eisenhower at three stages of his life: as a boy, as a general before D-Day, and as President.
As President, Eisenhower had a temporary disability that helped lead to the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. A stroke in 1957 left him temporarily unable to speak or move his hand. Eisenhower requested Congress to clarify the protocol relating to succession, disability, and illness, whether temporary or permanent. The subsequent 25thAmendment of 1967 stipulates what happens after President and/or Vice President dies, resigns, or becomes disabled.
We should use Eisenhower’s success to help end the stigma against disabilities, both visible and invisible. Many people think that a disability refers only to visible disabilities, which can be seen and helped with wheelchairs, walking stick, walker, seeing-eye dogs, and other devices. Some try to hide their otherwise visible disabilities by limping in order to blend in. Common visible disabilities are autism, Down Syndrome, paralysis, and Cerebral Palsy. However, not all disabilities are visible. Invisible disabilities can affect how people think, hear, speak, or interact with others. They include mood disorders such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Bipolar Disorder, as well as learning disabilities, such as dyslexia.
Legislation, such as the Americans with Disability Act of 1990, covers both types of disabilities. However, it is up to individuals with hidden disabilities to disclose their disabilities. Although people with invisible disabilities are protected by law from discrimination, many might not disclose their disability for multiple reasons. Some people with hidden disabilities might not disclose in order to avoid others treating them differently or negatively. In addition, unlike people with visible disabilities, people with hidden disabilities might be subject to questions about if their disability is real. They also could be thought of as someone who falsely wants benefits. For example, people with a service dog might be thought of as faking a disability to be with a dog at times when they otherwise would be prohibited from having a dog with them. Furthermore, people with hidden disabilities might not seek help because they do not realize that they have disabilities. Since invisible disabilities can be undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, people with invisible disabilities might not get the support that they can and should receive.
The new Eisenhower memorial highlights the need to elevate invisible disabilities. It brings attention to people with these disabilities, a group which is often ignored and afraid of disclosing their disability status. I am inspired that President Eisenhower had a learning disability and accomplished so much. I want people with invisible disabilities to find confidence in their disability status, to receive the accommodations they need to succeed, and, to be remembered fondly for generations to come.
For more information about how to visit the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, see https://washington.org/find-dc-listings/dwight-d-eisenhower-memorial