Harriet Johnson

Photo by John R. Polito for The New York Times, 2007 Photo by John R. Polito for The New York Times, 2007

On this date in 1957, Harriet McBryde Johnson was born in eastern North Carolina. Johnson was a civil rights lawyer in Charleston and a disability rights advocate. She advocated for the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and spoke powerfully about her own experience with her disability. Johnson was born with a degenerative neuromuscular condition — she was unconcerned with the specific diagnosis — and used a motorized wheelchair as an adult. She represented disabled people in court, ran for local office, and was active in the disability-rights group Not Dead Yet, which advocates against physician-assisted suicide and opposes the idea of euthanasia of severely disabled infants. Johnson was involved in a private correspondence with philosopher Peter Singer, also an atheist. The two debated the idea of euthanasia of severely disabled infants at Princeton University in 2003. Johnson published many opinion pieces and personal narratives in national newspapers, such as The New York Times, and wrote two books, Too Late to Die Young (2005) and Accidents of Nature (2006). She also spoke out against the “charity mentality” surrounding disability, and was publicly opposed to the "Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon." D. 2008.

“As an atheist, I think all preferences are moot once you kill someone. The injury is entirely to the surviving community.”

—Harriet McBryde Johnson, opposing suicide, The New York Times, Feb. 16, 2003

Compiled by Eleanor Wroblewski; Photo by John R. Polito for The New York Times, 2007

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