by Larry P. Johnson
I was brought up to believe that society didn't owe me a living. I had to earn it. I was taught that, just because I was blind, didn't mean that I was entitled to special treatment. My grade school teacher, Miss Baker, told us, "Because you're blind, you have to be better and work harder to make it in this world." Those were tough words. But they instilled in me the drive and determination to be successful.
She said, "When you're in class in college, if you can't write it down, memorize it." There was no talk about the college being responsible for providing us with a reader or the material in braille. It was up to us to figure out the solution, to adapt to the sighted world in which we lived.
I took it as axiomatic that my blindness, my "handicap," was my problem, not the college's. Sighted students volunteered to read to me. Bus drivers helped me across the street. Waitresses read me the menu. They did it out of kindness, not because they had to.
I suppose I was pretty lucky, because I met a lot of kind, helpful, caring people along the way. It made my adjustment to blindness a lot easier. I got to go to college. I got to follow my chosen career in radio. And I got to go to Mexico at age 18, alone, with my guide dog.
It didn't occur to me that "handicapped" people were discriminated against by society. I never thought about barriers that confronted people in wheelchairs or the problems a deaf person might have in a job interview. Much less did I consider that "handicapped" people had rights, that they deserve the same equal opportunities as people who are not "handicapped."
Then, in 1977, I read a book by Dr. Frank Bowe. It was titled "Handicapping America: Barriers to Disabled People." It was a mind-opening, stinging indictment of our country's exclusion of people with disabilities. Dr. Bowe described both the visible and the invisible barriers confronting people with disabilities. He wrote: "For 200 years we have designed a nation for the average, normal, able-bodied majority, little realizing that millions cannot enter many of our buildings, ride our subways and buses, enjoy our educational and recreational programs and facilities and use our communication systems. There are in this country tens of millions of people who have difficulties hearing, seeing, moving, learning, controlling their emotions, talking, but all are people. Their disabilities are real, but so are their abilities."
The more I read of Dr. Bowe's book, the more I realized that I was living in a shell. We were all guilty of creating these barriers, and so we were all responsible for removing them. I began talking with and making friends of other disabled people. In 1979, I was invited to go to Houston to join a small, energetic group of disabled leaders who envisioned the forming of a statewide non-profit advocacy organization representing all disability groups from across Texas. We did. It was called the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities. I was proud to serve on its board for 8 years. At one point we had more than 95 member organizations and agencies, representing tens of thousands of people with disabilities in Texas. We got legislation passed. We got budgets approved. We helped with the writing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. And CTD is still alive and well today.
In 1981, I helped co-found and served as chairman of the board of the San Antonio Independent Living Services, a local non-profit agency which provides advocacy services, peer counseling and information and referral service for people with disabilities in Bexar County and surrounding counties. I was honored to serve on its board for 9 years.
My full-time job for 21 years was as an HR manager with Southwestern Bell Telephone. While there, I was asked to be one of their consultant/trainers on disability issues. I did orientation programs for company supervisors, assisted disabled employees to obtain special accommodations, recruited qualified disabled applicants and represented the company on governor's and mayor's committees and at national conferences.
For more than 35 years I have given motivational talks, conducted workshops and sensitivity training programs for university and college faculty, students, parents, city staff, private sector employers, civic organizations and the general public, focusing on our society's need to remove physical and attitudinal barriers and afford people with disabilities the same quality of life opportunities.
This devotion and dedication to equal rights for people with disabilities was awakened in me by Bowe's powerful words. "The obstacles that face disabled people today may face anyone. A skiing accident. A highway collision. A mistaken dose of medicine. The barriers that confront millions of Americans are important because they deprive our country of badly needed manpower, deplete our natural resources, waste human lives and potentially affect all of us." He convinced me that there was a huge economic cost being incurred by our society's failure to utilize this untapped reservoir of human talent. But even more importantly, he underscored the staggering human and moral cost of depriving people with disabilities the dignity and opportunity to earn a living and fully participate in the life of their community.
Yes, Dr. Bowe's book changed my reality and reshaped my future.