Perception is so powerful it can ingrain even the worst prejudice. Wasn’t it just a little while ago women in America weren’t allowed to vote? Wasn’t it just yesterday “a woman’s place was in the home?”
If a woman worked outside of home, her choices were usually to be a nurse, teacher, secretary or stewardess for she was excluded from most other jobs. Promotions were few, pay was less than most men earned for comparable jobs and rising to management was out of the question.
Some colleges didn’t accept women, and many others limited their numbers. Rare was a female doctor, lawyer, judge, executive or political office holder. Women had few rights, as the laws often treated them as children, under a father’s or husband’s control.
Yet for centuries, society accepted that. And anyone who fought it was a “trouble maker” and cast out in ridicule by others, including ironically many women. Fortunately brave people of conscience waged long term battles to correct these inequities.
Until recently, society perceived disabled people as helpless. Often institutionalized or left in their homes, they were forgotten by the outside world to the point of providing no access to them to go into buildings, or to use restrooms, public transportation or even cross the street.
But in recent years, a small group of activists helped change that and communities began offering access most of the rest of us took for granted. Then in 1990, The Americans with Disabilities Act outlawed discrimination against the disabled and widely opened the workplace to them.
This is where Harriet Johnson joins our story. Born in 1957 with a degenerative neuromuscular disease, as an adult, Harriet zipped around the streets of Charleston (SC) in a battery-powered wheel chair playfully calling herself “a jumble of bones in a floppy bag of skin.”
But Harriet was determined to make the most of her life, society’s prejudices aside. Despite her severe physical limitations and difficulty in accessing classrooms and restrooms and lunch rooms and most other facilities in 1978 she graduated from Charleston Southern University and then got her master’s degree in public administration from College of Charleston.
In 1985, Harriet graduated from the University of South Carolina School of Law and went into private practice. Most of her cases were Social Security disability appeals for poor and working class people who had no income if they became unable to work. It was not glamorous work but she became a very important voice for numerous people in desperate need.
Harriet was also a prolific author, writing books and articles on behalf of the disabled and actively lobbied legislators, her presence and her successful law practice an outstanding example of what a severely disabled person could accomplish if allowed the opportunity.
Then in 2002, Harriet grabbed headlines in The New York Times after she debated Princeton Professor Peter Singer who argued that relief from the severe suffering and low quality of life for newborns with extreme disabilities, such as lack of higher brain function could justify the taking of their lives by parents and their doctors.
“Since their species is not relevant to their moral status,” said Professor Singer, “the principles that govern the wrongness of killing nonhuman animals who are sentient [meaning alive, awake, aware] but not rational or self-conscious must apply here, too.”
Defending disabled people’s rights and their right to exist Harriet wrote, “To Singer, it’s pretty simple: disability makes a person ‘worse off.’ Are we ‘worse off’? I don’t think so.” Adding, “We take constraints that no one would choose and build rich and satisfying lives within them. We enjoy pleasures other people enjoy, and pleasures peculiarly our own.”
The 8,000-word New York Times article brought major attention to the disability rights movement and helped give Harriet a highly visible public presence to make her compassionate voice heard.
And it was a voice she used effectively for the rest of her life on behalf of all disabled people. Not only did Harriet refuse to accept society’s limitations for her, she refused to accept them for other disabled people as well.
In June, Harriet died in her sleep in her Charleston home. But by this time, her determination and dedication had improved the lives of vast numbers of disabled people, which is pretty impressive for anyone but especially for “a jumble of bones in a floppy bag of skin.”
Originally Published on September 15, 2008