Civil rights lawyer, author and disability icon Harriet McBryde Johnson earned her rep facing down Ronald Reagan's Secret Service, disrupting a Democratic convention and debating Princeton ethicist Peter Singer about why she deserved to live.
So she's learned a few things about activism, which she shared May 11 in a Ryerson lecture hall, reading from her combatative memoir, Too Late To Die Young.
Her famous article Unspeakable Conversations, published in the New York Times Magazine in 2003, details her showdown with Singer, a utilitarian philosopher who proposes that parents be allowed to kill disabled babies to avoid future pain.
"Some say I won the debate, but some say he did," says Johnson to her audience of 50 in a meeting hosted by the Ryerson Institute for Disability Studies at the university's business building on Dundas.
"I think it's revolutionary to challenge the assumptions not just of centuries but of the millennia about who's worth what, who can do what and who decides what,' says Johnson who protested the Jerry Lewis telethon for 16 years straight.
Born into a politically engaged family in Charleston, South Carolina, Johnson, who has a congenital neuromuscular disease, says her activism started when she campaigned to get a teacher fired from a self-contained school she once attended.
That's when she understood the power of words. "I thought, if there's a problem, I could speak for people who couldn't," says Johnson. Her memoir colourfully depicts the daily struggles people with disablities face, from bedpans to segregation in institutions. "I didn't wanna write a conventional memoir. Publishers sent me five memoirs to read, and they were all about white, middle-aged women seeking solace in difficult circumstances. I read all five and thought I didn't wanna do that," she says firmly.
"I'm an extrovert. I didn't want to pretend to be an introvert."