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The Poliomyelitis virus has existed for over a millennium, but real polio epidemics started only in the twentieth century. This disease took thousands of lives and left millions of people disabled. Polio affected the U.S. on many different levels, and in some ways, it completely changed the American way of life.
In the first decades of the twentieth century, developed countries managed to conquer epidemics of diphtheria and dysentery. One of the factors that contributed to this success was the increase of hygiene standards. However, some scientists believe that it was this development that triggered the rise of polio virus. This disease mostly affected children, and it quickly became the nightmare of American parents. Polio epidemics reached their peak in the forties and early fifties. By this time, the virus killed or crippled over a million people a year. It was believed that before the twentieth century, lower hygiene standards allowed infants to contract polio during the first months of their life. The disease was weak at this stage, and could be easily defeated by the baby’s immune system which was fueled by the mother. Increase in the living standards resulted in children contracting the virus later in life. This led to a drastic increase in the number of disabled Americans, and prompted some serious changes in different areas of life.
The most important of these changes was the rise of a movement that fought for the rights of disabled people. Before this, those who were unlucky enough to lose some physical mobility were confined to various closed institutions subsidized by the government. They had no chance of integrating into the society and working. The number of people physically crippled by polio made it necessary to revise this policy. The fact that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was one of the victims of this disease played a major part in the acknowledgment of disabled people’s rights. President Roosevelt also founded the March of Dimes, the biggest non-profit organization of that time. The ideas for their fundraisers are used to this day by thousands of similar organizations all over the U.S. and even outside its borders.
Another polio survivor, an architect Ron Mace, developed Universal Design. This architectural project focused on creating buildings that can be both aesthetically appealing and equally accessible for healthy and disabled people. Buildings, buses, and even TV controls today are produced in accordance with Universal Design ideas.
Polio epidemics affected the U.S. greatly. However, this was a challenge that resulted in some positive changes for the society. The most prominent of them are development of new medical equipment, recognition of disabled people’s rights, and architectural changes that make public buildings accessible for everyone.
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