You are reading The Voice, the e-mail newsletter of The Special Needs Alliance. Rather than our usual newsletter format (including tips, answers to reader’s questions and explanations for special needs practitioners and families), this issue is a short memorial from the President of the Alliance to recognize the passing of a singular individual who advocated for all persons with disabilities. In fact, as President Andrew Hook notes, her advocacy transcended barriers originating from “disability” labels.
In 1975, shortly after I graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law, I took an oath demonstrating my commitment to uphold the highest standards of integrity and professional conduct in the practice of law. This “Oath of Attorney” continues to be recited today by attorneys at the beginning of their careers.
The Oath of Attorney rightly points out that we, as attorneys, should never reject the cause of the defenseless or oppressed. There is one woman whose life’s work stood as a manifestation of that principle, and today I ask readers of The Voice to join me in honoring the legacy that this remarkable woman left behind when she passed away earlier this month.
Harriet McBryde Johnson, among the most celebrated disability and civil rights attorneys in the country, died on June 4 in her hometown of Charleston, South Carolina. She was 50 years old.
Born with a degenerative neuromuscular disorder which confined her to a wheelchair, Ms. Johnson’s advocacy for individuals with disabilities began at a young age. A New York Times obituary recounts that at age 14, at a school for the disabled, she tried to get a disrespectful teacher fired; “the start of her hell raising.” She later went on to graduate from Charleston Southern University, and earned a Master’s degree in public administration from the College of Charleston. She graduated from the University of South Carolina School of Law in 1985, and spent the rest of her short life advancing the rights of individuals with disabilities — in court, in communities, in the media, and before policymakers.
I was personally touched by her words when she once responded to a reporter’s question about whether people with disabilities are “worse off” than those without them.
“Are we worse off’? I don’t think so. Not in any meaningful sense. There are too many variables. For those of us with congenital conditions, disability shapes all we are. Those disabled later in life adapt. 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. We
have something the world needs.”
Harriet’s passing is a challenge to attorneys everywhere to reaffirm our collective commitment to advocacy, and – on behalf of the Special Needs Alliance – it’s in her memory that I do that today.
Andrew Hook, CELA
President, Special Needs Alliance
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