Harriet McBryde Johnson

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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]


Johnson, who was born in eastern North Carolina, 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 Doctor of Law degree (J.D.) from the University of South Carolina (1985).[2]

In 2002, Harriet 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.[2][3][4] It also served as inspiration for The Thrill, a 2013 play by Judith Thompson partly based on Johnson's life.[5]

She published a memoir, Too Late to Die Young: Nearly True Tales From a Life, in 2005[3][6][7] and a novel, Accidents of Nature, in 2006.[2]

During Johnson's career as an attorney, she specialized in helping clients who were unable to work receive Social Security benefits. She was also chairwoman of the Charleston County Democratic Party.[3] She once described herself as a "disabled, liberal, atheistic Democrat".[1]

Johnson expressed support for Congress during the controversial Terri Schiavo case.[8] 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.[9]

In 1990 she drew national attention for her opposition to the annual Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon.[1] Lewis told the Chicago Tribune he had no intention of making peace with opponents such as Johnson. He likened the idea of meeting with them to entertaining Hezbollah or insurgents in Iraq. Johnson described the telethon as "the charity mentality" and decried its "pity-based tactics".[3][10]

In 2003 Johnson was named Person of the Year by New Mobility.

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

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 Hevesi, Dennis. "Harriet Johnson, 50, Activist for Disabled, Is Dead". The New York Times. Retrieved 7 June 2008.
  3. ^ a b c d Deadhead, Daisy. "Harriet McBryde Johnson 1957-2008". Dead Air. Retrieved 5 June 2008.
  4. ^ Zedda, Maria. "Harriet McBryde Johnson Proved Me Wrong". The Cutting Edge News. Retrieved 21 July 2008.
  5. ^ O'Connor, Donal (2013-08-16). "Strength of Judith Thompson's new play The Thrill is asking provocative, complex questions". Stratford Beacon-Herald.
  6. ^ Feingold, Laney (1 March 2006). "Too Late to Die Young : Memoir by Southern Disability Rights Activist Deserves the Attention of all Progressive Activists". Beyond Chron.
  7. ^ Cohn, Marjorie. "The Life and Death of Harriet McBryde Johnson : Stories of a Charmed Life". Monthly Review. Retrieved 5 June 2008.
  8. ^ Johnson, Harriet McBryde. "Why Congress was right to stick up for Terri Schiavo". Slate. Retrieved 23 March 2005.
  9. ^ "Ability Magazine: Harriet McBryde Johnson: Civil Rights Activist". Retrieved 2012-04-05.
  10. ^ Gartley, Cheryl (2008). "Harriet McBryde Johnson". Simon Foundation.