Able to lead: Disability activist visits Pitt

By Mark Pesto / Senior Staff Writer

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Mark Johnson once chained himself to a bus to draw attention to disability-inaccessible public transportation.

“Rosa [Parks] wanted to sit in the front [of the bus],” Johnson said. “I just want to get on.”

Johnson, director of advocacy at the Shepherd Center ­— an Atlanta non-profit hospital specializing in treating brain and spinal cord injuries — gave a talk titled “Taking it Personally” Tuesday in the University Club’s Ballroom B. About 50 people came out to listen to Johnson’s talk, which highlighted the issues facing America’s disabled community.

Johnson, who is paralyzed from the neck down, said his own disability taught him several valuable lessons, including that disability is a natural part of life. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 1 in 5 Americans live with some sort of disability.

“[Disability] happens daily,” Johnson said, “It’s a natural consequence of interacting with our environment. It’s normal.”

Johnson’s speech, which celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, was the latest installment in the annual Thornburgh Family Lecture Series on Disability Law. Pitt’s Dick Thornburgh Forum for Law and Public Policy, which puts on events designed to increase social and civic engagement, hosts the annual lecture series.

Dick Thornburgh, governor of Pennsylvania from 1979 to 1987 and the forum’s namesake, attended the speech with his wife and prominent disability activist Ginny Thornburgh.

Ever since he broke his neck in a diving accident in 1971, Johnson has advocated for the rights of people with disabilities by organizing communities, staging protests and lobbying politicians. He said political advocacy is vital to advancing people with disabilities.

“[Johnson is] perhaps one of the forces in America that has really helped to create the disability movement over the years,” Kate Seelman, associate dean of Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, said.

Johnson’s use of civil disobedience tactics, such as chaining himself to inaccessible buses — which he did for the first time in 1982 in Denver.  His resulting arrest record made him a nationally prominent figure in the disability community. Once, Johnson said the police took him to jail in a borrowed school bus because they had no other way to transport a person in a wheelchair.

“Normalizing disability — converting disability from a medical model to a political model — is a central part of improving,” Johnson said.

Johnson said society still marginalizes people with visible disabilities like himself. Because Johnson is a wheelchair user, when he goes out to eat with his family, he said the server will sometimes ignore him and ask his wife what he wants to order. In response, Johnson’s wife will say, “I don’t know. You’ll have to ask him.”

“Sometimes you have to stop people and make them think about what they said,” Johnson said.

According to Johnson, one of the major issues still facing the disabled community is housing accessibility.

“If you had to buy a house today, would you want to live in a house where you could resell to anybody, where anyone could visit, where you wouldn’t have to renovate if something happens to you, where you can age in place? Who wants to live in that house?” Johnson asked. In response, nearly every audience member raised their hand.

“Now, who does live in a house like that?” Johnson then asked. All but a few audience members lowered their hands, providing a vivid illustration of how few houses in America are accessible to people with disabilities.

Before his speech, Johnson met with about 25 students from Pittsburgh-area schools, including members of the Pitt group Students for Disability Advocacy.

Josie Badger, a teacher at the Parent Education and Advocacy Learning Center, a Pittsburgh support organization for families of children with disabilities, said she was glad to hear that Johnson met with students. She thought it was a good way to connect activists from different generations.

Badger said she was excited to hear directly from a disability activist as prominent as Johnson.

“I’ve taught about him for years,” Badger said. “It’s really cool to hear it directly from him.”

Colin White, a Community College of Allegheny County student, said Johnson is a role model for the disabled community.

“I feel like everyone with disabilities should do something like this,” White said, referring to attending Johnson’s talk.

Audience member Naomi Berman, a senior at Carnegie Mellon University who plans to create a group for Carnegie Mellon students with disabilities, said she found it “reassuring” to hear from such a prominent figure in the disabled community and to connect with other disability activists in the audience.

Although he hopes to pass the baton to a new generation of disability activists like Berman, Johnson said he doesn’t plan to quit advocating for disability rights any time soon.

“I guess I got to get out there more, and do more, and get in people’s faces every once in a while,” Johnson said.

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