Like Mike [Ervin, who spoke before me], I first met Harriet organized as a result of organizing a protest against the Jerry Lewis Telethon. What Mike didn’t mention was that the Muscular Dystrophy Association, sponsor of the Telethon, actually published both Mike’s and my home addresses in their national magazine, encouraging people to send us hate mail. And people did. But amidst all the angry letters, accusing me of ingratitude and malice, I also received a kind of love letter, from Harriet. She expressed solidarity, and she vowed to join the struggle against this annual assault on our dignity. Since that time, Harriet was the most consistent and outspoken of all the telethon protesters. I know many of you joined in her yearly efforts. I managed to put together a protest most Labor Days. Some years I didn’t, and Harriet forgave me for that.
That connection was the genesis of a deep friendship. I first met Harriet in the flesh in 1996, when I came here to present a workshop. Always the proud Charlestonian, Harriet promised me a tour during my visit. But I made the mistake of not bringing my wheelchair battery charger, and so by the time I had a free day, my chair was virtually dead. Harriet was pretty exasperated with me! But came up with a solution. She managed to finagle a paratransit ride around town, and since the van’s availability conflicted with her work schedule, Harriet asked her lovely mother to ride along as my local tour guide. But you can bet that when I came to Charleston again, last October, I had a fully charged chair! and finally got my Harriet-led tour.
Harriet was my colleague and comrade and confidante. We talked about so many things. On the phone, and through e-mail, we shared stories of our daily lives, our hopes and goals and fears, our frustrations and our pleasures. We discussed and debated many issues, personal and political …. and most issues were in fact both personal and political. We both, because of our disabilities, need daily personal assistance. That was one of the things we talked about a lot — the different ways that we got those needs met, in the context of our different living arrangements, our different strategies. We talked about what it was like to depend on family members or friends for help, and about the challenges of hiring attendants, and about Medicaid attendant care policies in Colorado and in South Carolina. These were some of the best conversations of my life.
In her article “Unspeakable Conversations,” Harriet called me her “beloved movement sister.” When that article was reprinted in a German magazine, that phrase was translated as “herzenshwester,” which literally means “heart sister.” From then on, we called each other “herzenshwester,” with great affection.
I’m here to say “Goodbye” to my herzenshwester.
In the van driving down from Atlanta yesterday, we were talking about a lot of current disability rights issues, including this new movie, Tropic Thunder, which gets some cheap laughs with repeated use of the word “retarded.” We were discussing how best to respond to the insulting language in this movie. Someone said, “What would Harriet say about this?” I have a feeling this question will be asked again and again in the years to come. Because of Harriet’s keen analysis, her sharp understanding of media images, we’ll probably ask that question often: “What would Harriet say?”
I hope Harriet’s legacy will go even further than that. I hope we’ll all fight as fiercely and intelligently as she did for the causes that matter.
Thank you all.