Last week, the disability rights community, and the world, lost a great warrior for social justice. Harriet McBryde Johnson, a writer, civil rights lawyer, and disability rights advocate, died suddenly at her home. She was 50 years old.
Johnson, who was born with a degenerative neuromuscular disease and used a wheelchair, was a remarkably eloquent and forceful champion for the rights of people with disabilities. She first rose to prominence as a scathing critic of the annual pity party known as the Jerry Lewis Telethon. Her objection to the telethon, she said, was simple: "It gives a false picture that [people with disabilities are] sad and miserable all the
time, just sitting around waiting for a cure. Those images get in our way when we try to live our
lives." She repeatedly called for Lewis's ouster: "He’s called people in wheelchairs ‘half persons’ and ‘mistakes who
came out wrong,' and says one outrageous thing after
another and won’t apologize. This is bigotry."
Johnson was perhaps best known for an extraordinary cover article she wrote for the New York Times Magazine. Entitled "Unspeakable Conversations," the article concerns a debate she had with Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, who has argued that parents should have the right to kill their disabled newborns. Johnson strongly took issue with Singer's contention that people with disabilities are "worse off:"