Photo courtesy of Norma Mangum.
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Is the glass half empty or half full? This is the question that many people ask themselves at one time or the other during the course of their lives But some people don’t even have to ask because they already know the answer, the glass is overflowing. Such was the case of Harriet McBryde Johnson, the southern attorney from Charleston South Carolina who just happened to have had Muscular Dystrophy and used a power wheelchair. Harriet knew that having a disability was only a small and relatively unimportant characteristic of the total human being and it should never interfere with one’s potential to be successful or to enjoy life.
Among her notable achievements such as writing articles for The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune, she gained recognition throughout the nation by aggressively protesting the Jerry Lewis Labor Day MDA Telethon. Harriet wanted people to know that having MD was not something for society to waste time grieving over instead she believed very passionately that everyone could and should have equal access to the American Dream. Perhaps the argument could be made that having MD made Harriet a stronger person. Stronger not in terms of being successful in spite of her disability but in terms in having more understanding about how to help dispel many of the erroneous myths that society has about persons with disabilities.
I would like to have the privilege of saying that I was close friends with this remarkable lady but I only met her a few times. However, I am greatly honored to be in love with the central character in “Accidents of Nature”. The book tells about a young girl with Cerebral Palsy going to camp and being with other persons with disabilities for the first time. The character’s real name is Norma Jewell Mangum, an equally remarkable lady in her own right.
No doubt even if Norma had not met Harriet at camp she would still have been very successful but I believe Harriet contributed to her positive outlook on life and her strong desire to succeed.
The passing of Harriet McBryde Johnson has left a void not only within the disability community itself but within society as a whole. Harriet left society better off than she found it and it is tragically sad that Jerry Lewis will never understand this.
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