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Who is Harriet McBryde Johnson?

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  • Written By: Dana Hinders
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 15 September 2016
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Disability activist Harriet McBryde Johnson was born 8 July 1957 and passed away on 4 June 2008. In one interview, she stated her goal was to help people understand that "The presence or absence of a disability doesn’t predict quality of life."

Harriet McBryde Johnson's disability was the result of a congenital neuromuscular disorder which left her in a wheelchair throughout her life and unable to dress or bathe without assistance. As a child, she attended special education classes until she was asked to leave at the age of 13 after beginning a campaign to have the head teacher fired. Her parents found a private high school for her to attend, where she excelled academically. She later when on to earn a B.S. in history from Charleston Southern University, a Master's in Public Administration from the College of Charleston, and a J.D. from the University of South Carolina.

A prolific writer, Harriet McBryde Johnson used her gift with words to inform the public of what it is like to live with a disability. She published both fiction and nonfiction books and regularly submitted articles to the New York Times and other high profile publications throughout the U.S. Her writing was both humorous and brutally honest, as she referred to herself using terms such as "a bedpan crip" and "a jumble of bones in a floppy bag of skin."

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In her work as a lawyer, Harriet McBryde Johnson operated primarily in the area of Social Security disability appeals. Although the job was not glamorous, she stated that she derived great personal satisfaction from helping her working-class clients get the assistance they needed to live their lives to the fullest. She also served on the steering committee of the National Lawyer's Guild and was a member of the board of directors of Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities. In 2003, she was named Person of the Year by New Mobility in honor of her many professional accomplishments.

In 2003, Harriet McBryde Johnson generated widespread interest in the issue of disability rights when she had a well-publicized debate with Professor Peter Singer, a Princeton philosopher who believed parents and doctors could ethically euthanize newborns with severe disabilities or the absence of higher brain function. His argument centered upon the belief that infants, like animals, are neither self-conscious nor rational beings.

Nationally, Harriet McBryde Johnson is perhaps best known for her work protesting the Jerry Lewis Telethon. She was opposed to the telethon's fundraising because she claimed the organization promoted "the charity mentality" and tried to extort money using "pity-based tactics." For nearly 20 years, she was one of the telethon's most ferocious opponents.

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