Image description: The photo shows Johnson in a flowered-print navy dress looking toward the camera. She sits in her wheelchair, though the image is a close-up focusing on her and not the chair. Johnson leans forward, right elbow on knee, chin in right hand. She’s a middle-aged white woman with dark hair in a very long braid trailing over her shoulder and into her lap. She’s not quite smiling, but looking interestedly back at you.
The Post and Courier of Charleston, SC, provides a preliminary notice, with a more formal obituary expected soon (the NYT will have something too, I hear):
Harriet McBryde Johnson, a well-known Charleston disability and civil rights attorney, died Wednesday.
“She worked yesterday. It’s a shock to everybody,” said friend and attorney Susan Dunn.
She was born July 8, 1957, and had been a Charleston resident since age 10.
She told The Post and Courier that she became an attorney because her disability-rights work had taught her something about the impact of law on how people live. . . .
Johnson, who was born with a neuromuscular disease, drew national attention for her opposition to “the charity mentality” and “pity-based tactics” of the annual Jerry Lewis muscular dystrophy telethon. Lewis told the Chicago Tribune he had no intention of making peace with opponents such as Johnson. He likened the idea of meeting with them to entertaining Hezbollah or insurgents in Iraq.
The protests started after Lewis wrote a 1990 Parade magazine article in which he imagined being disabled. Among his conclusions, “I realize that my life IS half, so I must learn to do things halfway. I just have to learn to try to be good at being half a person.”
Some of Johnson’s writings:
Unspeakable Conversations in The New York Times, February 16, 2003 — The magazine cover story featuring her debate with Peter Singer on disability and personhood.
The Disability Gulag in the NYT, November 23, 2003 — On escaping the institutionalization that threatens so many disabled people.
As New Mobility‘s Person of the Year in 2004, article by disability activist Mike Ervin
The Way We Live Now: Stairway to Justice in the NYT, May 30, 2004 — On the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Tennessee v. Lane.
Too Late To Die Young: Nearly True Tales From a Life, her memoir, published in 2005. Reviewed by Ragged Edge, excerpted in AARP Magazine, and included in a roundup of memoirs by disabled women at Disability World.
Accidents of Nature, her youth fiction book about a sheltered 17-year old girl with cerebral palsy who attends a summer “Crip Camp” and confronts how her physical differences and the accompanying ableism affect her interactions in the world. She and a friend also confront the ableism itself.
Speaking on video about Medical Ethics at Insights TV for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The first section at the link is “Perspectives on Antisemitism,” with Harriet McBryde Johnson directly below as part of the “Medical Ethics” section. Clicking on the link by Harriet’s photo and below the headline introducing her brings a pop-up window that includes a full transcript. Here’s the direct link to that window and transcript.
Wheelchair Unbound in the NYT, April 23, 2006 — Johnson writes about speaking at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Alas for Tiny Tim, He Became a Christmas Cliché in the NYT, December 25, 2006
A Step-by-Step Guide to Organizing a Protest Against the Jerry Lewis Telethon at disability activist Laura Hershey’s site Crip Commentary
13 Questions at BBC’s Ouch! on May 12, 2008
More links posted as available.
Update: There are links to blog tributes in the comments below, as well as this more complete (and more ableist in language) obit in the Charleston Post and Courier.
Friends of Johnson have created this website dedicated to her life and memory.
Cross-posted at The Gimp Parade