15 04 2008

Speaker says disability is not a tragedy

By KJ Lang | La Crosse Tribune

April 14, 2008


Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, Harriet McBryde Johnson was not allowed to go to public or private school despite the fact that she could learn and interact in school just like any other child.

The first time she flew in a plane, she had to sign a release agreeing that the pilot could reject her because her presence might “stress out other passengers.”

And when she first started looking for a job in the late 1970s, physical exams were common practice among employers.

But she could never pass one.

Johnson has a degenerative neuromuscular disease, which makes her unable to stand or even sit up straight in her wheelchair.

Today, Johnson is an author and attorney in Charleston, S.C., where her practice focuses on civil rights claims for people with disabilities.

Because of her disability, she has faced discrimination throughout her life, she said.

Laws like the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and the Help America Vote Act of 2002 have provided better protection for people with disabilities. But Johnson says discrimination is still prevalent.

Johnson will visit the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Wednesday, where she will talk about some of what most people don’t know about living with a disability.

One thing most people don’t know is that Johnson doesn’t want to be cured.

While she needs help to bathe and get dressed, she said she can’t imagine living any other way and and thinks it would be weird and lonely to do these things alone.

“Most people see disability as a tragedy or a misfortune — something to be scared of,” she said. “It can be those things, but not necessarily. It is much more complicated and interesting than that.”

Johnson is one of more than 50 million Americans living with disabilities, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Our lives are as rich and full as any other, and I think we all have things to say that have not been heard,” she said.

Johnson has spoken to audiences around the country and enjoys speaking at colleges.

“Their business is learning things, and they tend to be lively and inquisitive,” she said.

Johnson said an active student group advocating for disability rights was an incentive for her to visit the UW-L campus.

Tom Link, the advisor for Students Advocating for Potential Abilities, said turnout is often small for the group’s events because people think that if they don’t have a disability, it doesn’t pertain to them.

“I think everyone could learn something from this woman if they would listen to her,” said Link.

If you go

What: Lecture on living with disabilities

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Graff Main Hall auditorium, UW-L

Admission: $8, $3 for UW-L students, $6 for employees

Tickets: Available with credit card by calling (608) 785-8898.

KJ Lang can be reached at (608) 791-8226 or klang@lacrossetribune.com.




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