Harriet McBryde Johnson

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Harriet McBryde Johnson (July 8, 1957 – June 4, 2008) was an American author, attorney, and disability rights activist. She was disabled due to a neuromuscular disease and used a motorized wheelchair.[1][2]


Harriet McBryde Johnson was born in eastern North Carolina, July 8, 1957, in Laurinburg, one of five children by David and Ada Johnson. Her parents were college teachers.[2] She was a feisty child: A quote from her sister said that "Harriet tried to get an abusive teacher fired; the start of her hell raising."[2] She lived most of her life in Charleston, South Carolina. She earned a bachelor's degree in history from Charleston Southern University (1978), a master's degree in public administration from the College of Charleston (1981), and a J.D. degree from the University of South Carolina (1985).[2]

In 2002, Johnson debated philosopher and bioethicist Peter Singer, challenging his belief that parents ought to be able to euthanize their disabled children. "Unspeakable Conversations", Johnson's account of her encounters with Singer and the pro-euthanasia movement, was published in The New York Times Magazine in 2003.[3][2][4][5] It also served as inspiration for The Thrill, a 2013 play by Judith Thompson partly based on Johnson's life.[6]

She published a memoir, Too Late to Die Young: Nearly True Tales From a Life, in 2005[4][7] and a novel, Accidents of Nature, in 2006.[2] An important article that she wrote for the New York Times was titled "The Disability Gulag." In this article, Johnson described institutions where "wheelchair people are lined up, obviously stuck where they're placed" while "a TV blares, watched by no one." Johnson called for reform for disabled people. She wanted disabled people to be placed in publicly financed home care provided by family, friends or neighbors, and not institutions.[2][8]

During Johnson's career as an attorney, she specialized in helping clients who could not work in receiving Social Security benefits. She was also chairwoman of the Charleston County Democratic Party.[4] She once described herself as a "disabled, liberal, atheistic Democrat".[1] In an interview with the NY Times, Johnson jokingly described herself as "a bedpan crip" and "a jumble of bones in a floppy bag of skin."[2]

Johnson expressed support for Congress during the controversial Terri Schiavo case.[9] Regarding the attention her writings about the Terri Schiavo case received by the press, she commented:

It's frustrating to me that it boiled down in the popular discussion to a conflict between right-to-life and right-to-die. I don't think that's it at all. I think that we ought to analyze the case in terms of disability discrimination.[10]

In 1990 she voiced her opposition to the annual Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon.[1] Johnson described the telethon as "the charity mentality" and decried its "pity-based tactics".[4][11]

Johnson died in her sleep at home on June 4, 2008.[1]

Awards and honors[edit]

In 2003 Johnson was named Person of the Year by New Mobility.[citation needed]

Published works[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Findlay, Prentiss. "Harriet McBryde Johnson dies". Charleston Post and Courier. The Post and Courier. Retrieved 4 June 2008.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Hevesi, Dennis (7 June 2008). "Harriet Johnson, 50, Activist for Disabled, Is Dead". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 29 September 2012. Retrieved 12 February 2023.
  3. ^ Johnson, Harriet McBryde (16 February 2003). "Unspeakable Conversations". The New York Times. Retrieved 9 August 2021.
  4. ^ a b c d Deadhead, Daisy (5 June 2008). "Harriet McBryde Johnson 1957-2008". Dead Air. Retrieved 5 June 2008.
  5. ^ Zedda, Maria. "Harriet McBryde Johnson Proved Me Wrong". The Cutting Edge News. Retrieved 21 July 2008.
  6. ^ O'Connor, Donal (2013-08-16). "Strength of Judith Thompson's new play The Thrill is asking provocative, complex questions". Stratford Beacon-Herald.
  7. ^ Feingold, Lainey (1 March 2006). ""Too Late to Die Young"". Beyond Chron. Retrieved 9 August 2021.
  8. ^ Cohn, Marjorie (5 June 2008). "The Life and Death of Harriet McBryde Johnson : Stories of a Charmed Life". Monthly Review. Retrieved 5 June 2008.
  9. ^ Johnson, Harriet McBryde (23 March 2005). "Why Congress was right to stick up for Terri Schiavo". Slate. Retrieved 23 March 2005.
  10. ^ "Ability Magazine: Harriet McBryde Johnson: Civil Rights Activist". Retrieved 2012-04-05.
  11. ^ Gartley, Cheryl (2008). "Harriet McBryde Johnson". Simon Foundation.