DSQ > Summer 2007, Volume 27, No.3

This article examines a range of polio rehabilitation center newsletters and polio-related quarterly publications from the late 1930s to the late 1960s. Drawing on the writings of disability and textual scholars, it determines that these print materials enabled the formation of polio-affected communities, or even a politically motivated polio nation, whose shared interests, concerns, and newly formed identities were represented in these works. The more grassroots and somacentric the orientation of these periodicals, the more therapeutic they may have been.

Keywords: polio, newsletter, lifestyle magazine, independent living, humor

In May of 1961 the founding editors of the Toomey j. Gazette, which began as a newsletter for a respiratory polio clinic in Cleveland and became an internationally circulated magazine, wrote a four-page letter to the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, pleading for the lives of "respiratory polios." This population of severely impaired Americans was about to lose its vital sources of funding, treatment, and personal care attendance, as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis wound down its operations nationwide, due to a sharp decline in contributions — and the national perception that the polio problem was "over" — following the Salk vaccine in 1955. The editors, Sue Williams, who was herself an iron-lung user, and Gini Laurie, who lost three siblings to polio and was later dubbed "the grandmother of the independent living movement" (Goodwin, Headley) described with eloquence the persisting presence of this group in the American midst: "We are Chronic Respiratory Polios — occupants of iron lungs or their equivalents. We are a new world of people."

This new world, or new "race" if you will, was a singular product of its time: pre-vaccine, in that persons with respiratory polio became infected and paralyzed before the vaccine was available, but, as the editors imply, were post-antibiotics and other supportive medicines, which by the early 1960s saved lives that might have been otherwise lost. They were post-polio — safely past its most life-threatening stages — but not at all done with its lasting effects, as more fortunate Americans felt themselves to be by the early '60s. They were, in contrast to a forward-looking, ever-healthier American society, stuck in a pre-vaccine past, and as is the case with all veterans of tragic, concluded wars, on the verge of being forgotten by the mainstream. It was up to the editors to convince the government that, like this American mainstream, "we ["respiratory polios"] are young, energetic, and healthy (Yes! Healthy!)," that "we have our brains, and we are capable of running our homes and earning a living." Williams and Laurie described men and women in their prime struck down — not by polio but by lack of financial support, leaving families floundering, separated, and sent into foster care. The vigorous rhetoric and vital message on display in this appeal matches the approach taken in the editors' regularly-appearing Gazette, where Laurie would later forthrightly engage with her beloved community of "heads" in an editorial whose title is my own as well.

The Gazette produced by Williams and Laurie, as well as a quarterly publication named Accent on Living and various incarnations of a periodic newsletter published by the residents of Warm Springs, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's (FDR's) own rehabilitation facility in the mountains of Georgia, exemplify the vitality and political significance of the recovering polio community itself, much of which would form the first population of Americans with physical impairments to lobby successfully for disability rights. These typed, mimeographed, stapled, and freely circulated sheets and booklets aided recovering "polios" (the term they themselves used, irreverently and subversively) in the formation of communal and individual identities. These were identities that successfully included their illness and impairment experiences, even as those waiting for them to the return to able-bodied productivity sought to deny and minimize this new reality. While polio publications took many forms, some of which bought too heavily into this ideology of anxiety and denial, those examined here "embody" the polio experience for their readership by situating the body plainly, productively, and with spirited wit in the center of polio identity discourse.

In thinking about these earlier polio-affected communities as inaugurators of the modern disability rights movement, it is helpful to consider what modern critical studies of this issue have helped us to learn about such community formation. Specifically the findings of scholars of deafness as a bodily particularity and especially of Deaf culture as a proud and politically transformative "linguistic minority" bear productively on the phenomenon of rehabilitation culture and discourse that flourished mid-century at polio clinics and centers around the US. This cultural identity coincides with or may in some ways conflict with biological membership in a hearing family; Harlan Lane observes that Deaf culture is much less interested to mainstream or integrate "its own" children (i.e., children from hearing or deaf families of school age); the position taken is that deaf teachers are best equipped to instruct such children in signing, reading, and writing and that deaf children's self-esteem and personal and social integration will come primarily from associating with the Deaf community. As Lane notes, "[o]rganizations espousing each construction of deafness [i.e., deafness as impairment and Deafness as cultural identity] compete to 'own' the children and define their needs" (155). Also, Lennard J. Davis elaborates upon the concept of Deaf persons as a nation within a nation (in this case, the U.S.), drawing upon writers as diverse as Benedict Anderson and Josef Stalin to explore the idea of Deaf nationalism. In 1913, Stalin defined a nationality as having "(1) a common language; (2) a stable community; (3) a territory; (4) economic cohesion; (5) a collective psychology and character" (Davis, Enforcing Normalcy 75).Most pertinent to my current study, "Anderson thinks of nation as a manifestation of print culture....[I]t was readers 'connected through print, [who] formed, in their secular, particular, visible invisibility the embryo for the nationally imagined community'" (Anderson 47, Enforcing 75).

While Davis reads Deaf culture according to these theories, they are equally helpful to understanding Williams and Laurie's "new world of people," the permanently polio-affected in postwar America, as is the ethnofamilial model of bodily particularity enacted by Deaf culture and theorized by Lane. Mid-century residents of polio rehabilitation centers did not meet Stalin's criterion of a "stable community," coming to these centers with the express purpose of leaving them rapidly and permanently behind. Yet it is the case that those rehabilitating from polio came as exiles from forward-moving, able-bodied America (what Davis calls "the United States of Ability" [Bending 102]) and found life-sustaining collective and individual identities therein. For those many who were never able to leave behind their status as physically impaired, their membership in these disability communities defined and oriented them throughout their lives; while they may have left the physical setting of the rehab centers themselves (their shared "territory," in Stalin's terms), they remained citizens of this invisible nation through the mobilizing force of its print culture.

Similar to the sign language that distinguishes and unites its Deaf practitioners, polio language will be read in this essay as the particular ways in which recovering polios spoke to each other in a textual canon that only they were meant to read, only they were meant to understand. While it was not a language as specialized as ASL, it is characterized by a vocabulary whose terms would have mystified the non-polio-initiated, while its style was a product of the rehabilitation experience (its frustrations, absurdities, and occasions for dark humor) and the residents themselves, whose age and class demographics will be considered below. It is true that their "interpretive community" (Stanley Fish's term) included not only rehab center residents but their doctors, therapists, visiting family members, local and national politicians, and the advertisers who sometimes occupied the pages of even in-house newsletter (in addition to at least one polio-related national magazine, Accent on Living); I will argue, however, that the print culture of polio nationhood was most revolutionary, and most therapeutic, when it addressed itself specifically to the polio-affected community. Its adult and juvenile members recognized in such writing their shared, permanent membership in an exclusive, even privileged, society, and they empowered themselves through such membership even as they returned, as crutch-walkers, wheelchair-rollers, and iron-lung-breathers, to the outside world.

The Chronicles of Warm Springs

The Polio Chronicle was the original version of the Warm Springs series and adhered to a reserved, even stodgy manner of presentation and content. In a striking editorial from April 1933,the editors fend off criticism that "the CHRONICLE is too dry, that it lacks the proportion of humorous and light material to make it interesting to all." Yet they agree to include more material on "the humorous side of polio," significantly, for its therapeutic effects: "Interesting events are part of the Crusade, for they show how we here compensate for losses of athletics, etc. The funny incidents and accidents are a part of our attitude toward polio." Their concession is a page of cartoons (featuring "Polio Pete"), reviews of the week's entertainment, and lists of visitors entitled "Bubbles from the Spring." The editors even try a limerick or two in what seemed to be a recurring "Paralyzing Poetry!" feature. Meanwhile, they are resolute in their refusal to include items of a gossipy nature: "The fact that Bill Jones went to Columbus with Mary Smith is not an important step in this Crusade" and would likely draw disdain from "[t]he host of doctors, nurses, and physiotherapists who make up a large part of our circulation" (April 1933, n.p.)

Yet it is necessary to question the idea that publishing personal tidbits about the residents' personal lives and romantic escapades would play no part in the anti-polio crusade. "Bill and Mary's" elopement would surely have terrific curative effect for the couple themselves, while reporting upon it would only multiply the payoff: not only are the little doings of seemingly unimportant center residents now seen to be of vital significance, but the readership itself makes a vicarious escape with this happy couple and may more seriously contemplate their own prospects for romantic fulfillment because of it. Perhaps most important (or at least most likely), Bill and Mary become household names to the larger community, who await their return, and the occasion to tease and harass them, with raucous anticipation. Both individual identities and communal connections are formed through disseminating gossip in such a publication; the Chronicle refused to admit this possibility, but its several successors took up this particular campaign in the Crusade with zeal.

(Social) Class at the Warm Springs "Campus"

Warm Springs' second installation in their newsletter series, The Crutch, had by the late 1930s supplanted the Chronicle, and took itself far less seriously. Resembling less an urbane magazine than a college newspaper, the mast was in simple font and the plain type loosely spaced. Headlines, paragraph breaks, and cut-lines of various widths broke up verbal monotony; football scores and a children's column are front-page features of the November 15, 1937 issue. In fact, children played almost no role in the sophisticated pages of the Chronicle; as the Warm Springs newsletter moves through its later permutations, they will be an evermore central feature, and the adults will come off more and more youthfully, even childishly on occasion, making this community seem even more unified and solidified in its exuberant outlook, its shared tastes in news and entertainment.

This downshift in editorial styling coincides with the physical transformations undergone by the Foundation itself. In 1933, the stately but declining Meriwether Inn, which had been a Warm Springs spa/resort since the 19th century, was taken down and Georgia Hall (still on the grounds today) erected in its place. Interestingly, the Inn had been a site of tension during the Foundation's earliest days, when its able-bodied clientele looked with horror upon, then fled in disgust with, the encroaching population of polio-affected persons who adapted its country club atmosphere to its own needs. (See Oshinsky 36-37.) If the original clients of Warm Springs were in fact an equally classy bunch whose elegant newsletter reflected the refined setting they were pleased to preserve, the collegiate air of the succeeding Crutch conveys the sense that Warm Springs itself had transformed into an environment akin to a well run college — more state-sponsored than Ivy League — by the late '30s as well. Marc Shell notes that "most communal institutions for polios were partly rehabilitative and partly academic and social" (118). Shell quotes polio memoirist Lorraine Beim, who describes her "acceptance letter" to Warm Springs, received the same year she received an acceptance letter to Wheaton College. Beim writes, "'Warm Springs...is in many ways like a college'" (Shell 118).

Considering the issue of social class as it may be traced in the styling of these newsletters, it is helpful to return to Davis who argues persuasively for the connection between disability and class: "disability causes poverty, and...poverty likewise causes disability" (Enforcing 85), due to the hazardous nature of low-level work and lack of access to medical care for those in the lower classes. It is also the case that disability oftentimes impoverishes even middle-class and wealthy persons, due to the toll taken on personal finances to sustain an adequate post-impairment lifestyle. This funding issue is exactly what caused Williams and Laurie to approach the federal government in 1961; significantly, however, in the 1940s and 1950s when Warm Springs was in its polio heyday, the nationwide polio community's "economic cohesion" (returning once more to Stalin's terminology) came from the well-run and generously supportive March of Dimes, allowing even those profoundly affected the necessary medical care and living standards, enabling Warm Springs and centers like it around the country to assume an air much less of boot camp (or internment camp) than of summer camp. Shell's report of the "acceptance letter" to Warm Springs indicates that such rehabilitation centers were in their own way elite clubs that selected members based on specific criteria — race being a primary one and the limited number of spaces being another. Beyond that, one's impairment status seemed to be the main determinant; one gets the sense from reading its extant newsletters that Warm Springs (and other rehab centers such as Rancho Los Amigos in Hondo, California) served a clientele from the middle and working classes and that this fundamental divide (between, in another register, bourgeoisie and proletariat) closed easily (however provisionally) in the all-against-polio setting.

We must also consider the ways in which FDR, who founded and frequently visited Warm Springs, was known not only as U.S. president but as a wealthy, elegant scion of New York aristocracy with a distinguished career in politics throughout the 1920s. Considering the ways Roosevelt sought to disguise or deny his polio disability throughout his life, Davis argues that "Since the disabled are a kind of minority group within the nation, it would hardly do for the President to be a representative of that minority group" (Enforcing 98). Although his argument is true in many ways, it is the case that Roosevelt was known and loved by fellow-polio survivors as one of their own, that his polio-affected identity and his frequent presence at Warm Springs had a gentrifying effect not only on those lucky enough to be "accepted" into his "alma mater" but on polio-recoverers and the otherwise-physically impaired across the nation. As far as concerned this minority group itself, Roosevelt indeed represented them figuratively and literally; he was president not only of the able-bodied U.S. but founding father of an ever-grateful polio nation.

The Lighter Touch

Not only were regional football contests a more and more pressing concern in the Crutch; but the Warm Springs "campus" itself provided its "students" with a spectrum of programming commonly associated with colleges as institutions of character formation: clubs, teams, contests, trips, entertainments, and service opportunities galore. Indeed, everything but actual classes are reported upon frequently in the pages of the Crutch. Interestingly, "course work" in this context would have been the rehab sessions each resident subjected himself to — the stretching, exercise, swimming, and difficult, endless practice that were in fact rarely mentioned in this publication. Its heavy coverage of leisure activities — a debate club, nightly films, a Beautiful Eyes contest, prizes on Washington's Birthday for "most original headdress" — depicted Warm Springs residents as overgrown kids playing hooky, which for necessary, therapeutic reasons they in fact were. Early editor Robert Shermer's christened the Crutch "a non-official publication" — almost certainly a playful nose-thumbing at the trenchant officialism of the preceding Chronicle.

To be sure, the Crutch continued to scatter among its lighter fare the informative, more serious articles that were a central feature of the Chronicle. For example, one Crutch item described the latest in respirator technology — offered first, not surprisingly, to Frederick Snite, Jr., likely the wealthiest respiratory polio-survivor in American history (15 Nov. 1937, 1). Another piece in the same issue gave a historical overview of rehabilitation services since the 19th century (3A). What looks at first like a "Dear Abby" column in fact treats a vital political issue — "shall polios marry?" — and includes a range of responses; unfortunately, even Foundation residents interviewed for the piece feel that "mixed" marriages — "a polio and an A.B. [able body]" — were likely to fail (15 Nov. 1937, 2).1 Like its predecessor the Chronicle, the Crutch maintained a connection to the larger world by including letters each week (mostly complimentary) from prominent subscribers — among them Roosevelt and Snite — and reporting heavily on visitors' comings and goings. In one strangely slanted item from the "Personals" column that listed these many arrivals from the outside, even the death of a resident is reframed in terms of a visit from his sister, "called to the Foundation Wednesday" to evidently collect the dead man's body. Clearly an element of denial is at work in the wording of this entry, though other questions remain open: was this cultivated connection to the able-bodied world the more therapeutic method for such a publication to employ, or would the intense inward focus of the next incarnation of this newsletter, Wheelchair Review, prove the more restorative textual approach?

If these "personals" were in fact fairly public in their orientation after all, hearkening back to the mainstreamist orientation of the earlier Chronicle, another recurring installment, "Scene and Heard Here and There," delves into the gossip surrounding the residents themselves that the Chronicle editors decried. The column's title tells all: this extensive collection of glimpses and overhearings, gathered by two reporters whose informant network must have been vast, mimics the scintillating buzz circulating through society columns and celebrity tabloids. The reporters and their informants are the paparazzi clamoring for information, and those lucky enough to be featured from one issue to the next may have bristled at the intrusion but enjoyed the adulation as well. That every resident got to be the celebrity at some point in such writings breaks down the traditional dichotomy between sought-after stars and obscure, anonymous public. At Warm Springs, and likely since their first days with polio, residents' rights to privacy had been largely dismantled. Having the spotlight shone on them by fellow-survivors would have surely been a welcome change from their typical role as specimen for probing physicians and therapists. In these gossip columns, everyone felt himself the fascinating center of attention on a regular basis, an effective antidote to the anxieties of being forgotten and ignored upon return to the able-bodied world. And the marked triviality of these items — one patient did not like last night's movie; doesn't another one have a pretty smile? — would tend to boost the ego even more: every little thing one was and did was of interest to this close-knit community, yet one had to be or do nothing very special at all to be a topic of such gratifying mention.

Special attention surrounded gossip of a romantic nature, which in turn raised the question of whether these published pryings had in fact overstepped their bounds, had violated rights to private courtship and sexual activity taken for granted in the able-bodied world. While what a male and female patient "sitting on the floor of the bus" were "seen and heard" doing remains unclear — or at least unstated — the reference is more pointed, and both more juvenile and more suggestive, in a later item: "No doubt most of you don't know what the uproar was last Sunday evening at the pushboys' table — Well it's like this: [name]'s lips were red, and believe me, he hadn't been eating strawberries" (22 Nov. 1938, 8). Pushboys were able-bodied staff members who pushed patients in wheelchairs around the Foundation; on occasion they married the female residents, yet the "uproar" following this tryst involving a staff member does not indicate any such serious attachment. From these polio publications, one learns that sex between residents and between staffers and residents was a fairly frequent occurrence at Warm Springs; in the 9/9/51 issue of The Wheelchair Review, one patient suggests "more bushes and fewer lights" (bushes being the classic site for romantic assignations) when asked about more recreational activities. That some of this sexual activity ever exploited the women involved in the couplings is a distinct possibility, and such possible exploitation, joked away in the item quoted above, raises the issue of unethical staff conduct, as well as the newsletter's own journalistic responsibilities or breach thereof.

Focus on Gossip and the Body

Indeed The Wheelchair Review indulged even more frequently and more variously than did the Crutch in speculating on the relational plots involving Foundation residents; much of the writing involved such tattling on who was seen with whom, who was crying over whom, who (or what) was driving whom crazy. Most of the ribbing was good-natured, though not without its edge: one time a resident was described as a former medical student, reported to now suffer from "acute dementia praecox with schizophrenic tendencies," and to have been recently visited by "the Foundation's recently acquired psychologist (12 Aug. 1951, 5). However, the comment derails into a gag — a list of the eccentric activities engaged in by the patient, including cutting out paper dolls — that is somewhat cruel: it invites laughter at the patient's expense just as it touches on the sore point of his unfortunately pre-empted medical career. In a "pet peeves" column on that same page patients harass each other's baseball teams, criticize obnoxious behavior, and name fellow-residents specifically among their peeves. The newly arrived were shielded from the merciless kidding, as items on "newcomers" had a much more neutral, welcoming tone than items referred to as "news" — gossip and teasing by and about Warm Springs veterans. Yet even one item called "Crutch Tips and Brace Points" both attempts to con the greenhorns with comic misinformation and criticizes the uncaring staff: "For you men to get a push boy, be sure to wear a wig and skirt, act helpless and push your chair in front of you....Friday is the only day you can duck your therapist — -the beauty shop is most accommodating and likes the trade....If you really want service, get a television set in your room" (25 June 1955, 11).

Even more pointed is a satiric essay entitled "Pushboys, Arise!," which calls for these neglectful attendants to get off their "divans" and do some actual attending. Mid-essay, the author gently prods, "It's hard to preach the Golden Rule to a group of lads who don't fully realize how much they mean to us. But it becomes annoying every so often to be obliged to cater to the whims of the preoccupied pushboy. Just because we can't very well exact retribution is no reason to take advantage of us, boys" (27 Sept. 1951 1). Exploitation by an indifferent staff, speculated upon above in my discussion of one pushboy's "red lips," and the resultant disgruntlement of the patients depending on them seems to have been widespread at this point, and may account in part for the rougher tone of these pages.

Perhaps the most striking theme specific to the Review was the residents' bracing focus, (pun intended) on their bodies and physical situations. No longer were the reporters and interviewees inclined to silence on the glaring issue of their reason for being at Warm Springs; the increased interest in residents' love lives was part of this new comfort with the body and its travails, as were their pet peeves related to inattendant pushboys, unappetizing therapeutic diets, "my little ol' iron corset," and "P.T.'s who lie awake nights dreaming of new exercises for my already tired muscles" (12 Aug. 1951, 5). "Glute" jokes (regarding weak gluteus muscles) were a staple, and an accomplished author in residence claims that he would "trade his Ph.D. for an A.B. [able body] any day!" (12 Aug. 1951, 5). B. Sinclair's cheeky column (actually, an entire page), "For Skirts Only," provides women advice not only on gadgets like reaching tools and lap boards helpful to both sexes (a beat covered thoroughly by Accent on Living and the Gazette as well) but on beauty tips that acknowledge women's special challenge of maintaining marriageable femininity despite their new limitations. Sinclair advises on the most wearable fashions for wheelchairs (separates and wrap-around skirts), attractive enough to "draw the observer's interest away from the disability." Feminine touches any woman might add — a rope of pearls converted into a choker, the latest color for fall ("rhubarb"), and "a gold sequin at the outer tip of each eyebrow for the evening" (12 Aug. 1951, 7) — presented female readers with "normal" feminine options, especially from the waist up.

While the present-day able-bodied feminist perspective frowns upon such "girl talk" even as it continues to explore the relationship between the personal and political, the disability-studies feminist standpoint includes serious inquiry into the difficulty that impaired women have had, especially in the modern era, finding sex and marriage partners (see, e.g., Asch and Fine, Holmes, Mairs, Thomson, and Wendell). Mairian Corker and Sally French define the role of "discourse" in disability studies against the anti-textual bent of social model theorists (who mistrust almost all attempts to narrativize individual stories of impairment) in explicitly feminist terms: "To counter [social model theory] is critical for us, personally and politically, as people with sensory impairments and as disabled women" (7). The discourse I attempt to claim here is the body of rehabilitation writing as a whole, as well as interesting women-focused columns such as Sinclair's. Just as Warm Springs neared its end as a rehabilitation center for persons with polio, in the weeks and months leading up to the Salk vaccine, its textual forum for communication and community formation opened itself fully, to include, and thus defray the most isolating effects of, polio itself.

Therapeutic Cover Art

The Review's remarkable cover art — a new line drawing by a resident artist for each issue — augments this focus on the body, its impairment and rehabilitation. Bill Tyndale, Rozell Mink, and Janet Land provided humorous or inspiring sketches in the early 1950s; Jack Lightfoot's more sophisticated, densely shaded works from 1956 were even darker in their humor — a therapist exercising a patient with a sadistic grin, another patient with a post-operative leg stitched on backwards — and coincided with the Review's adoption of a heavier-handed style reminiscent of the over-serious Chronicle. Later issues of the Review include a full-page table of contents, a lengthy staff listing, and subscription rates, details too elaborate for what was still just a 15-page packet. At this point, the newsletter also returned to longer, even full-page articles instead of the breezy, digestible "items" of the early '50s. The single-panel gags featuring Polio Pete in the Chronicle of the '30s transformed into a full-length strip, "The Adventures of Polio Man," in late 1956. While production quality remained low, the over-serious attempt to copy a full-size magazine format took the publication in the wrong direction, bogging it down, stilting its ad hoc, fast-paced flow. By contrast, earlier drawings by Tyndale, Mink, and Land moved airily across the page: Mink penned a comical four-panel "New Patients Views Of Warm Springs" (14 May 1955) that was four ceiling shots of light fixtures, the roof of the brace shop, etc. — all viewed from the angle of being supine on a stretcher. Tyndale decorated the cover of the President's Day, 1952, issue with George Washington, ax raised — not cutting down a cherry tree, but gleefully hacking his wheelchair. Land's undated cover features a boy whizzing down an incline in his wheelchair, trailing far and high behind him a whimsical kite aided by a kindly gust from Mr. Wind.

Perusing the staff listings of various issues across the decades reveals the rapidly revolving door that frequently put new editors, reporters, and artists in charge and resulting in constantly evolving formats, styles, and contents. A flexible, minimalist approach seems to have served best; cumbersome formatting worked against the requirements of the genre and took up space perhaps better devoted to maintaining those vital communication lines. The very existence of these publications, their reliable appearance on a weekly or daily basis, was continuity enough, and over-production was simply a distraction as it was introduced and distracting yet again when it was removed or redesigned in the following issue. The lively, slapdash cover art and content pages of the early-'50s Wheelchair Reviews may be seen to represent the pinnacle of the form at Warm Springs. The disgruntled voices, dark humor, and body-consciousness are most realistic and most therapeutic, suggesting light-heartedness, movement, and freedom.

In/Constant Companions

One factor in the more expensive styling of the early Polio Chronicle (in addition to numerous ads for "invalid" products that provided an actual budget) was its monthly publication schedule, a leisurely timetable allowing reporters to do careful, sophisticated work and allowing more resources overall to be devoted to just a few annual issues. The many weeks separating one Chronicle from the next, however, also meant that this newsletter was much less a part of the communal life and the individual recovery process than would be one of more regular appearance. The Crutch in its earliest incarnation (in the mid 1930s) was in fact The Daily Crutch, a single sheet, listing that day's events. While a daily publication might indeed serve as the ideal constant companion for the loneliest and most traumatized among Warm Springs's residents, the daily production schedule was evidently too hectic to maintain, and the Daily Crutch soon gave way to the weekly Crutch, which, given a slightly longer interval to regroup, was able to offer a much fuller product. Both the Crutch and the Review seemed to have been weekly publications until the late 1950s, when the Review's transition to a bimonthly was part of the general leave-taking of polio occurring throughout the country at that point. In addition to providing the most constant form of emotional support, the daily newsletter is also most coincident with the day-in/day-out nature of the rehabilitation experience. Had a daily issuance become tedious eventually, it only would have been in line with the endless repetition of stretches, exercises, and minutely incremental improvements in the move from polio paralysis to functionality.

Significantly, once the patient-generated newsletter transcended its origins in the rehab/outpatient setting to enjoy a professional (even commercialized) existence as an inter/nationally circulated magazine, it reached out to a far wider audience as it simultaneously withdrew from such frequent circulation. None of the polio-related magazines discovered in my search appeared more often than once a month; Accent on Living (which began its career as Polio Living) was in fact quarterly, while the Gazette's schedule changed over the years, being sometimes monthly, sometimes seasonal. As essential a source as these publications continued to be, it is also the case that readers reconnected with this vital textual community and the news and information it provided only at lengthy intervals. Accent's "Idea Exchange," invited readers to present "cases" to fellow-readers (originally, these posed a legal or ethical dilemma — "what would you do?" — later becoming practical in nature) that were ruled on in the following issue. The Gazette used its "Letters" column to perform a similar function. However, the lag time between a question or call for assistance and its appropriate response could be two to six months (depending upon whether answers were provided by readers in time for the next issue), stilting and threatening the vitality of this dialogue due to the exigencies of the production process. Could a question even be remembered, would a problem seem so urgent, so many months after it had been posed? Those invested in the question of discussion — submitting it themselves or simply sharing it silently, busily searching for answers or responding because disagreeing with suggestions already published — faced a frustrating wait for the dialogue to play out. Those less involved (not having the problem in question, for instance) would be less frustrated than bored by the slow pacing of the conversation. As vital as these serial publications were to readerships interested to connect with others in their situation, the lines of communication were surely attenuated by cumbersome temporal logistics.

The Wider World

Both Accent and the Gazette provided an international perspective, cultivating alliances with polio foundations and individual polio survivors from around the world. Accent inviteed its audience to subscribe to the Polio-Revue L'Archipel (of France), then reported on sewing instruction received by a polio patient in "Bombay" (Spring 1959). Letters to the editors of the Gazette came from all over the world, and the editors were special friends of Jürgen Erbsleben, a young West German who at an early stage of his polio career took a history-making flight across Europe with nursing aides and the latest respirator technology (Summer 1959). Proficiency in English seemed to have been a prerequisite for communication with these magazines, surely a limitation that excluded many, though enough non-native speakers obliged to continue providing both publications with an international reach. Surely the purpose behind this broad scope was to create and connect the largest possible "new world" of para- and quadriplegic polio-affected persons. As Davis describes sign language, and thus its sign-using citizens, as "transnational" (Enforcing 82), so these editors offered citizenship in this new world without regard for national identity, indicating that one's status as a polio survivor transcended traditional boundaries and enabled exchanges with friends from around the world that many Americans in their able-bodied yet isolationist mindset never sought to experience. In this respect, the bed-bound polio survivor traveled more widely than many Americans ever would, and understood more about the wider world as well. Earlier or later in their respective careers, both magazines also expanded horizons by writing and designing for a more generalized disabled/quadriplegic audience, with name changes for both (Polio Living to Accent on Living, Toomey j. Gazette — named for Toomey Pavilion, a respiratory polio clinic — to Rehabilitation Gazette) indicating this broader shift.

Diverging Readerships

Both magazines reported frequently on the latest assistive devices, although their differing emphases even within this area indicated their ultimately divergent styles, aims, and readerships. Accent's address to a wide audience of polio survivors (respirator-users as well as, perhaps especially, crutch-walkers and wheelchair-users) coincides with its more conservative style and content, while the comparatively more urgent situation of the Gazette's more narrowly defined, specifically respiratory readership seems to have given rise to its more radical, outspoken editorial approach. Both magazines enjoyed the donation of a $1400 portable respirator (from the same manufacturer in Boulder Colorado) and both ran contests to determine which reader would be the lucky recipient. Certainly, this donation was part altruism and part calculated move on the part of the Thompson company — to inform these magazines' audiences as to the existence and value of its product; interestingly, the Gazette ran no actual advertisements but obliged the company with a favorable write-up of the donation and the contest, while Accent used ads in every issue to both inform readers as to the latest products and pay its bills. Devices for the impaired (hand-operated autos, therapeutic beds, wheelchair lifts) were the primary commodities sold in the pages of Accent, while even editorial matter like the "New Products and Services" column served an advertising function by directing readers to various stores where the equipment in question was sold (e.g., Spring 1959, 21).

Accent's sometimes-imperceptible blending of editorial and advertising content added to the comparative slickness of editor Raymond Cheever's publication — its sophisticated design and construction as well as its overtly commercial aims typical of "able-bodied" magazines. I suggest that Accent's more commercial aspect benefited its audience as importantly as did its special-interest/grassroots elements: the magazine's emphasis on advertising delineated its readership as a powerful consumer market, ready to direct its still considerable income toward product suppliers and public facilities (and even gas stations; see below) willing to retool for its needs. The ads themselves were informative, even instructive, providing potential buyers with a range of choices and perhaps the comforting sense that technology and industry were indeed racing to meet their requirements. The Gazette provided such technical support without the use of advertising; they frequently described (and hand-drew) the latest in portable respirators and mouthsticks (with which respirator-users do everything from type to paint to scratch), which were the devices of greatest interest to their respiratory readership.

In addition to its use of advertising Accent on Living comes across as the more traditional publication in multiple respects. Stylistically, it offered few provocations, making use of traditional layouts and lettering; the Gazette often hand-wrote its "Bulletin Board" items, centering them on variously sized and shaped "scraps" and tacking them to a line-drawn bulletin board. Such inventive handwork made these regular "columns" into visually striking works of art; each page provided an eclectic mix of font types, photography, hand-lettering, line-drawing, expressionistic angles, humor, and tragedy. Accent frequently discussed employing "the handicapped" and profitable lines of work for the newly impaired, though the wider range of income options available to Accent's primarily less impaired readership made this a less urgent issue. By contrast, meaningful work and adequate income were almost obsessive themes for the Gazette, which reviewed and added to the most viable possibilities — mouth-painting greeting cards, selling magazines (and other items) over the phone, monitoring local TV stations (to report to advertisers whether their ads were shown as promised), and even graphology (handwriting analysis) — in every issue. The Gazette also ran several items on ham radio operating — a popular pastime in the 1950s that was appropriate for the fully paralyzed and an interesting means by which to connect respiratory ham operators with their able-bodied counterparts around the country.

Accent's regular features included advice to the lovelorn ("Dear Bonnie") and a spiritual column entitled "The Bible Says." One progressively slanted article asked "Should the Handicapped Consider Marriage?" (Summer 1960), while the Gazette discussed "Sex and the Disabled" (Holbert). That Accent was edited by a wheelchair-using male editor says little if anything about the politics of the magazine he publishes, yet that the Gazette was run entirely by young women (three of whom were respirator users) suggests the Gazette's origins in a groundbreaking collective of markedly atypical publishers and policy-makers. The contrasts enumerated here are not offered to subordinate the contribution made by Accent to that of the Gazette, nor to even suggest that Accent was politically conservative even though it was stylistically traditional. I wish instead to draw attention to the markedly different niches each occupied, the likely divergent audiences each served: traditional, middle-class, less polio-affected readers for Accent; more deeply involved polio survivors for the Gazette, whose radically new physical circumstances perhaps overrode former class identifications and tastes in reading material, allowing all kinds of respirator-using polio survivors to embrace the Gazette's no-holds-barred style.

Early Advocacy

Despite its more traditional output, by the late 1960s Accent was publishing high-quality, civil-rights influenced articles advocating for access and acceptance for the physically impaired. Various issues directly addressed ableist prejudice (e.g., Spring 1970); William R. Scales's "Battle of the Bathroom" (Winter 1969) treated a topic understandably enraging to wheelchair users with gracious good humor. Scales described the pre-ADA nightmare of simply leaving home, knowing that bathrooms large enough to accommodate one's apparatus will be difficult if not impossible to find. The author was able to chuckle over his having used heavily trafficked facilities with the door open, having gotten stuck in an outhouse, and having used women's bathrooms, which for mysterious reasons were often more spacious. While he pointed out that he had become the devoted customer of one oil company whose gas station bathrooms were indeed large enough, he refrained from naming the company in question which might have had even more effect. Scales generously refused to criticize the nonplussed able-bodieds who were surprised by and scowl upon his unorthodox bathroom visitations; his controlled approach to a topic others might attack with much more righteous indignation created perhaps the optimal context for consciousness-raising among complacent ableists.

Also remarkable here is the "personal" focus that I found so therapeutic in the examples of the polio newsletters discussed above: where in those publications, the emphasis on an intensely networked polio community aided in the redevelopment of individual post-polio identities, here Accent's early focus on the polio-affected (or otherwise impaired) individual — his employment options, his best bets with respect to mechanical assistance, his "personal problems" — represent the traditional (even politically conservative) approach to impairment and disability. The magazine's turn to the public aspects of the question — access, accountability, acceptance — is decidedly progressive in nature, and stands in sharp contrast to the "public relations" campaigns performed by early issues of the Warm Springs newsletters. Those early newsletters took pride in their connection to the able-bodied sector, pled to be remembered by there, and kept always an able-bodied perspective in mind. By contrast, polio magazines like Accent on Living lead the campaign to force awareness onto an indifferent mainstream and transfer the "problem" of disability from the individual to society.

As productive a piece of disability-rights journalism as Scales's article for Accent in fact is, it cannot help but pale a bit when compared to the more urgent agenda and exhilarated presentation of the Gazette. The earliest issues recall in detail the tone and content of the Warm Springs Crutch and Wheelchair Review, with continued strong interest in the littlest doings of its one-time residents. Outpatients who returned to the Toomey Pavilion clinic for check-ups or to simply visit received write-ups in the "Toomey Alumni News" column that described health status and post-polio lives. In a vein reminiscent of the most life-affirming numbers of Warm Springs's Wheelchair Review, the original aim of the Gazette is to share "fun" information with polio-affected respirator-users from the Cleveland area and around the world (August 1958, 2). The editors joke with one alumna who has not gotten around to reading the latest Gazette issue yet, and later that year editor Sue Williams chides readers for not only not reading their Gazettes but for failing to write back. In one issue a detailed lesson on frog-breathing is made "fun" by whimsical drawings of smiling frogs whose several speech balloons contain helpful hints from those who have mastered the technique. Above I described the remarkably inventive "Bulletin Board" that was a recurring feature of the early issues; its design was eye-catching, and its white-on-black lettering/illustration of the square, rectangular, even wedge-shaped and circular "notices" verged on the truly hip.

The Spring 1961 "Bulletin Board" exhorted its readers in the course of four separate items to "fill out CENSUS," "send in your CENSUS," and "drop us a card / We'll send you another" if you "LOST YOUR CENSUS" — the survey being one tool used by the editors to know and reach its citizenry. As if delegating responsibility at the meeting of a private club, the editors in another item ask their by-now international audience, "Will some of you help us by investigating the possibilities [of graphology as a career], training, remuneration, etc.?" Elsewhere, they solicit descriptions and drawings for the "perfect respo rest home," ask off-handedly "Did you notice our new...name?," and seek to connect "handicapped hams" (radio operators) to each other. Note the range in use value in these various announcements — from those constituting genuine information to those bearing purposely pointless chit-chat reminiscent of the most trivial detail-sharing of Warm Springs's Crutch and Wheelchair Review. Note also that each item requests and expects some sort of response from the reader — a reaching-out to other polio-affected respirator-users in the readership network or a writing-back to the editors themselves with information (about, for instance, graphology), ideas (about ideal rest homes) or more pointless chit-chat ("yes, I did notice your new name; it's nice"). The editors implicitly recognized that writing back was one thing their readership did well, that interpersonal contact through reading, writing, and even radio operating had never been so important.

With a clever comment on the analogy between text and post-polio health, Sue Williams jokes with her readers in the Winter 1958-59 issue about the file cards kept on every subscriber: "To us," she informs, "the cards are not impersonal for we can pull out any one and rate it according to that person's involvement with the Gazette. How would the doctor-editors diagnoze [sic] your case?" Williams then outlines five levels of involvement, the most "fatal," being readerly disinterest: "(a) Against it — you're dead. Cause of death is suffocation." The healthiest scenario is "(e) Joins in by sending in a little news — you're not only healthy but you are still growing. We label you 'special people.'" Another editor, Sally Russell, makes the case even more plainly in Spring, 1959: "We wish to bring to the readers stories and information that will be of real value to polios....Friendship thru letter writing is a venture where polios have joined hands thru the pages of our magazine" (Winter 1958-59). Finally, the "fourth wall" that so carefully limits the connection between any traditional magazine and its readership, lowered in each issue only as long as it takes to cull and (sometimes) reply to "Letters to the Editor," is rarely if ever visible in these earliest Gazettes. This dividing wall was barely there because — and I make this observation in the most complimentary respect possible, the Gazette was barely a magazine — text-based, yes, but as alive and personally present to its readers as otherwise possible in its looseness, informality, and proud non-professionalism.

And yet there is little of the triviality and silliness characterizing the "news" from Warm Springs to be found in this later publication. These polio-affected persons' marked physical limitation distance them from their Warm Springs counterparts, whose impairments involving only the mid-section or various limbs seem by comparison a lighter load. The simplest activities described in the Gazette's "Alumni News" column, for instance, must be read also as major achievements; in fact these completely immobilized alumni are a remarkably mobile bunch, and the reportorial emphasis on their many activities — riding around in cars, visiting friends, touring Cleveland, watching an Indians ballgame — is as much fun to read about as it is startling and instructive.

The able-bodied reader is struck as well by the charming cartoons of Emmanuel Leplin, a Bay area composer of classical music and art editor for San Francisco's Spokesman (as in the spoke of a wheelchair wheel), yet another polio newsletter for and by polio survivors, one issue of which was reprinted in its entirety in the Spring 1960 Gazette. Leplin's drawings are spare but suggestive, evoking the pretty San Francisco skyline and cleverly converting a figure in a wheelchair into both the "O" and the "K" in the paper's name. His cartoon of a happily hooked-up respirator-user — smiling at us with his portable chest shell respirator plugged into a wall — is arresting in its incongruity; it literally pictures the "adequate home care" called for in this panel that would put the smile on this figure's face. One (the able-bodied one, that is) is taken further aback when the editors point out that all of Leplin's works are — no surprise after all — drawn by mouthstick. That Leplin makes more attractive, persuasive art with his mouth than most of us would make with both hands is another of those "fun" realizations that creates genuine awareness and understanding.

Surprises of another kind emerged in the Gazette's coupling of bold language with taboo subject matter. Dr. Duncan A. Holbert's article "Sex and the Disabled" is remarkably forthright; Holbert calmly informs his readership that disabled people who remain single can still live happy, fulfilling lives; that masturbation is a healthy practice for impaired and able-bodied alike; and that for impaired people with partners who wish to maintain a satisfying sex life, "anything goes": "In this completely private world, there are no rights or wrongs, there are no traditions that cannot be broken. The ultimate test of success is that an orgasm or sexual climax, with its relief of sexual tensions, should occur for both, with each time an increasing loving feeling for the other" (15). Holbert even speaks approvingly of homosexual relationships (except in cases where same-sex partnering substitutes for failed searches for heterosexual partners), when few mainstream publications of this vintage treated even able-bodied sex in such illuminating, informative terms.

In a letter to a later issue, a regular reader-contributor to the Gazette, Elbridge Rector, detailed the lack of care he suffered at a public institution. His narrative was bleak — somewhat rambling and purple of prose, but clear enough in describing the abuse he suffered by overworked, uncaring state workers when, evidently, his National Foundation support for private attendance ran out. Rector can barely breathe during the early days at the hospital, due to the absence of the essential rocking bed, a device that mimics the diaphragmatic push-pull of the iron lung. He is left alone, unrotated, for hours at a time, then develops a rash when required to lie in his excrement. Shockingly, the letter is followed by an Editor's Note, informing the audience that Rector is now deceased. Again, such a disturbing confrontation by the tragic indignities of ableist neglect would have been a rare find in any other popular (or even special interest) magazine of the period. Significantly, by the later issues, the Gazette's early motto — "to share the experiences, problems, thoughts and adventures that would be fun to know about each other" — was revised in keeping with these more serious themes, and the trouble portended by the National Foundation's threatened withdrawal of financial support, discussed at the outset and treated in detail elsewhere by Gazette editors: "to share the problems, experiences, thoughts and adventures that would be of value to know about each other." While the plight of polio-affected respirator-users was about to be radically devalued by the financial sources that supported them up this point, the respiratory readership itself insisted upon its continuing value and stressed the invaluable connections to be made amongst each other during this difficult time.

Epitomizing the humor, candor, and courage on regular display in these publications is Gini Laurie's Gazette editorial in the Summer 1959 issue, "Heads, you win!" With this marvelous pun (borrowed for my article's title), Laurie engages in a bit of potentially offensive slang only acceptable within this narrowly defined community. While not physically polio-affected herself, Laurie was a long-time volunteer at the Toomey Pavilion clinic, a close friend of the "horizontal editors" who ran the Gazette as well, and a supporter of the local respiratory polio community in multiple ways. She was therefore as "in" within this community as a "vertical editor" could get, and her reference to her "fellow"-respiratory polio survivors as "heads" indicates not only the closeness of her connection but the irreverent, forthright humor that seemed to have amused this group as a whole. Curiously, Laurie cannot fully escape her able-bodied status on this occasion, the blindspots that are its perennial hazards, as she addresses this column to able-bodieds like herself by referring to "my gentle, perceptive, fun-loving respiratory friends" and later (even more stridently) "these breathless characters" in the third person. As unfortunate as this angling of the address might be, Laurie nevertheless offers the profound reminder that, quoting Ecclesiastes, "wisdom is better than strength," that it is indeed better to have one's head — even if that is all one has — than to be without it. If not like those Toomey alumni running around Cleveland with perfect disregard for their quadriplegic status, those, Laurie asserts, who simply "relax, enjoy life, and add depth to the lives of others" have "won" an important victory.

In a brief item below this column, the editors inform their readership that they have "coined a new word to describe us — Respos" — to substitute for the lengthy and cumbersome "respiratory polio" that might have seemed the more polite term. Meanwhile, even calling someone a "polio" may strike the uninitiated as demeaning and inappropriate, no better than the term it in-part supplanted, "paral," used by the writers of the Polio Chronicle back in Warm Springs's early days.2 Perhaps each term fell into common usage because those who themselves had polio got tired of taking careful semantic steps around the reality of their situations. All three expressions are light-hearted, fun, and even funny — marking their coiners and the groups they caught on with as no-nonsense types who were slowed down, not enabled, by fussy word choices.


Today, disability media are more progressive, sophisticated, and numerous than ever; a range of quarterly publications targeting every political and personal demographic has flourished in recent years and expanded (or transformed) into internet formats to reach even wider audiences.3 Certainly, print media continue to serve those who remain outside of internet access, while the web speeds the pace (and thus the significance) of information transmission and personal connection as print forms never can. Special Living, the latest incarnation of Accent on Living, is the only surviving publication with specifically polio-related origins, yet I would contend that all of these contemporary serials descend from the polio-specific ur-texts I have considered in this article. Topics of concern in contemporary publications — access, equipment, local and world news related to disability issues — reflect those of the Gazette and Accent on Living; their use of photos, illustrations, and humor increase their appeal and accessibility as did the earliest newsletters from Warm Springs. The interdependence of these publications and disability rights groups with national constituencies (such as the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, Justice For All, Not Dead Yet — even Ms. Wheelchair America) is by now complete; it is clear that these publications have been vital to the formation of these groups and that their efforts in turn sustain these texts as ever more vital organs for their respective readerships.

In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson argues that print culture enabled the concept of nation to replace that of religion not only by explaining and justifying human suffering4 but by maximizing its market in the shift from Latin to vernacular languages (42). In this essay I have examined the vernacular phenomenon of the polio newsletter, which provided those affected by polio a means by which to recognize themselves when Latinate medical and bureaucratic terminology excluded and alienated them. As polio may be said to have inaugurated the illness pathography genre in nonfiction,5 so polio happens to have been the first medical issue around which coalesced a genre of serial publication that has nurtured related political movements (disability rights, independent living) of vital historical significance. In tandem with the activism of disabled veterans, who have drawn attention to disability issues since, likely, the American Revolution, and whose media presence (in film, radio, mainstream periodicals, and special-interest magazines) was enormous during this WWII/early postwar period, the editors, reporters, contributors, photographers, artists, and readership for polio newsletters created a mandate and immediately began to fulfill it. In many ways, disability rights serial publication has never departed from the project outlined by Gini Laurie and Sue Williams in their earliest discursive outreachings to their core audience and the able-bodied (and ableist) population beyond: to spread awareness to this wider world that the physically impaired are "young, ambitious, educated...energetic and healthy (Yes! Healthy!)" and to build a worldwide network of "valued" persons with disabilities through "fun," friendship, information exchange, and united strength.

This article was greatly supported by an NEH Summer Stipend in 2004, by the staff at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, MD, and by Michael D. Shadix, Senior Librarian in the research center at Warm Springs.


  1. Interestingly, the Crutch's conservative precursor, the Chronicle, referred to prejudices against polio-affected persons marrying able-bodied girls as "tommyrot" (May 1933).
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  2. As "paral" may be short for either "paralyzed" or "paralysis," one might have placed the emphasis on either syllable. A limerick from the August 1932 Polio Chronicle indicates placement on the latter: "There was a paral from the Bronx ["pronounced "Bronnix"] / Who wasn't so good on harmonx; / But she married a guy / Whose income was high — / Now her braces are studded with onx."
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  3. Mainstream Magazine, Mouth — Voice of the Disability Nation, and especially Disability Issues (originally Together, founded as a monthly newsletter in 1980) and the pointedly countercultural Ragged Edge (originally Disability Rag, also begun as a newsletter in 1980) are now well established magazines; newer publications include New Mobility Magazine and the web-zine Disability World. From Mississippi hails "The Strength Coach," Greg Smith, who hosts a weekly syndicated radio show regarding disability, diversity, and tolerance.
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  4. Significantly, the questions of human suffering Anderson sees religion as once having answered are all disability-related: "Why was I born blind? Why is my best friend paralysed? Why is my daughter retarded?" (18).
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  5. While she does not credit polio specifically, Anne Hunsaker Hawkins observes that the genre of illness pathography emerged suddenly during the 1950s (xv, 3); I speculate that polio was largely responsible for generic innovation.
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Works Cited

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Copyright (c) 2007 Jacqueline Foertsch

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