July 24, 2020
John D. Kemp
I was fitted with prosthetic legs when I was two years old and my first arms at the age of three. Born without arms and legs, I have brought my life experiences as a person with a disability to the work I have done for the last 40+ years. In a world with few role models with disabilities in the public eye, I use these experiences to guide the children and adults we serve at The Viscardi Center and Henry Viscardi School build their disability pride and serve as proof that they can live the American Dream.
I use each interaction to guide and encourage them to set the bar high and achieve goals they set for themselves. The significance of Viscardi’s work is seen every day. Medically fragile children with severe physical disabilities defy the odds and expectations of others to earn the same high school diplomas as their non-disabled peers and go on to college and the workforce. At-risk youth gain confidence to change their life’s path, complete high school and successfully transition to adulthood ready for higher education or gainful employment, thus changing a potentially negative impact on them and their communities to that of positivity. Youth and adults with disabilities confidently enter/re-enter the workforce to achieve their own financial independence.
I have tried to be a champion of the disability community nearly my whole life. It began when named the 1960 National Easter Seal poster child. Since then, I have traveled the U.S. and the world discussing disability topics with the goal of tearing down barriers and demanding equality of opportunities.
On my path to becoming a national leader in the disability community, in 1995 (25 years ago), I co-founded the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) with Paul G. Hearne—a graduate of Henry Viscardi School. We met years earlier in the ‘80’s when we were 27 year old lawyers travelling the country giving disability rights speeches, and we were reunited in Washington D.C. at a time when our disability movement had gained some – but far too little political and economic power. We drew upon our experiences and challenges, creating an organization made up of thousands of individuals with disabilities to drive forward progress in these two critical areas. Each year thereafter, AAPD would host a ‘party’.
From a New York Times article of May 10, 1998:
Mr. Hearne, whose afflictions included an overactive blarney gland, maintained such good cheer in the face of his own disabilities that at meetings of the Disabled Studies Group, no one could keep a straight face, least of all the bartenders of Washington. They knew that when Mr. Hearne, his buddies John Kemp and Rick Douglas, and other members wheeled through the door for an evening of serious study, the laughter would flow like beer and the joint would be jumping all night.
That’s how we started AAPD, through a mythical organization, the Disability Study Group, created to convene advocates for beverages of their choice and to talk policy for a maximum of two minutes each! Paul and I felt it was far more important to bring diverse peoples with disabilities and our allies together in disability unity than be too serious and our policy issues soon forgotten. It worked, and today, AAPD is back and growing stronger than ever under the smart leadership of Maria Town, President Obama’s Disability Advisor, and a past Viscardi Award winner.
When approached to lead The Viscardi Center, I was a partner in a wonderful D.C. law firm, The Powers Firm, advocating for federal disability policy improvements. Once I visited Viscardi, it was easy to accept the role as President and CEO at an organization founded by a renowned leader with a disability, Dr. Henry Viscardi, Jr., an international role model. He was a great role model for me when I saw him deliver a powerful keynote as a young nine-year-old boy.
Coming to Viscardi has been the synthetization of my life’s work. I share my personal journey because I have been involved with the disability rights movement for over 60 years and as we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), we must acknowledge that we all have a duty to advocate for continued change and improvement of our lives. While progress has been made, slowly, too slowly, since 1990, there is still much to be done.
The two areas that Paul and I focused on when we created the AAPD remain critical. Without greatly improving the employment rate for all of us with disabilities, which has barely increased since the ADA was signed, we will never secure our financial independence and harness our economic power. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a detrimental impact on our Nation’s economy, which will surely have a devastating impact on hiring outcomes for the disability community already facing a far lower labor force participation rate than those without disabilities. It will be crucial to find new ways to drive employment.
It is our hope that The Viscardi Center’s new National Center for Disability Entrepreneurship (NCDE) will be a model, a strategic pathway for innovative self-starters to achieve self-employment success. Traditional employment for the 30 million people with disabilities of working age in America presents many barriers which lead to widespread unemployment and underemployment, no matter the level of education, disability or age. Self-employment paints a brighter picture.
To be a true political force to be reckoned with, we need to become political leaders ourselves and to demand that all political leaders address our needs, strip away archaic, restrictive policies that hold us back and ensure our civil rights are upheld.
Our disability voice must be heard on November 3. It has never been more important for people with disabilities to VOTE. This is the only way to achieve the equality and inclusivity that was intended when, on July 26, 1990, President George H. W. Bush took his pen, signed this landmark legislation, saying, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down!”
Happy 30th Birthday, ADA, and 25th Happy Birthday, AAPD!
John D. Kemp
President & CEO, The Viscardi Center
John is a renowned figure in the disability rights movement who has received international recognition for his leadership in both the corporate and nonprofit worlds. As a person with a disability who uses four prostheses, he hopes to inspire others to achieve the impossible.