Fighting assumptions about the disabled, as well as bias

People assume that the nation’s estimated 50 million disabled people live lives of grim struggle, says Harriet McBryde Johnson. That’s untrue, says Johnson, a South Carolina lawyer who uses a wheelchair because of a congenital neuromuscular disease. Such assumptions about disabled people constitute prejudice akin to racism, she said in a September talk on campus. “Our lives are interesting and rich,” said Johnson, who wants disabled people to “bear witness to our pleasures.”

Johnson garnered national attention in February 2003 with an article in The New York Times Magazine describing her conversations with Princeton ethicist Peter Singer, who argues that it is ethical to kill severely disabled babies, an argument based, in part, on assumptions about quality of life. Johnson acknowledges that disabled lives, like nondisabled lives, include some suffering. She, for example, is dealing with a swallowing problem that sometimes makes her a “basket case. … But I wouldn’t say I need to be euthanized; there is much more to my life than swallowing,” said Johnson. Nor does she want to be a special case, or “a little Harriet exception” to prejudice. “I believe that living our strange, peculiar lives is a contribution, and doing it openly and without shame is really a revolutionary act.


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