Harriet Johnson, Who Celebrated the Lives of Those With Special Needs, Dies at 50

Individuals with special needs lost one of their fiercest defenders when Harriet McBryde Johnson died June 4 at age 50. Ms. Johnson, who was born with a degenerative neuromuscular disease that confined her to a wheelchair, earned a law degree and represented the disabled in court. But she made her name by championing in books and articles the idea that the disabled are no worse off than their nondisabled counterparts. As she wrote in The New York Times Magazine in February 2003, 'The presence or absence of a disability doesn'™t predict quality of life.'

Ms. Johnson became famous after challenging Princeton philosopher Peter Singer's assertion that it could be ethical to euthanize severely disabled newborns. The two debated the issue twice. Writing about their encounters in the Times Ms. Johnson said 'To Singer, it'™s pretty simple: disability makes a person '˜worse off.'™ Are we '˜worse off'™? I don'™t think so. . . . We take constraints that no one would choose and build rich and satisfying lives within them. We enjoy pleasures other people enjoy, and pleasures peculiarly our own.'

Ms. Johnson published two books: a memoir, Too Late to Die Young, in 2005, and a novel, Accidents of Nature, in 2006.

In an appreciation of Ms. Johnson in the Times, Lawrence Downes wrote: "The disabled certainly suffer. But everyone does, Ms. Johnson argued, and if the disabled face extra hassles and indignities in life, well, remedies for those things are all possible, and should be provided. Instead, the world is run by and for the nondisabled, and those who don't measure up are infantilized, ignored and stockpiled in institutions that Ms. Johnson called 'the disability gulag.' She feared being sent to it in her later years."

To read Ms. Johnson's obituary in The New York Times, click here. Article Last Modified: 06/13/2008