Harriet Johnson: Woman of Valor

Harriet Johnson: Woman of Valor

Harriet McBryde Johnson was a woman most Americans never heard of. Yet, she was well known to 51 million disabled Americans and their families. Her life story is almost unbelievable. Johnson was born with a degenerative neuromuscular disease and never wanted to know exactly what the diagnosis was. She attended schools for the disabled and was always feisty. Her sister Beth described how “ Harriet at 14 tried to get an abusive teacher fired; the start of her hell raising!”

In her memoir, Johnson recalled that when she was in her teens, she watched a Jerry Lewis muscular dystrophy telethon. It had a reverse effect upon her and she turned against “the charity mentality” and “pity-based tactics”. She referred to herself without pity as “a jumble of bones in a floppy bag of skin”. Johnson loved “zooming around” the streets in her home town of Charleston, South Carolina in a battery-powered wheel chair. She graduated from Charleston Southern University in l978 and earned a master’s degree in public administration from the College of Charleston. She then pursued a law degree which was granted by the University of South Carolina School of law in l985.

With her education completed, she set up a private practice, representing the disabled in court, lobbying legislators and writing books and articles. Her mantra was: “The presence or absence of a disability doesn’t predict quality of life.” On April 22,2001, Johnson rolled into the auditorium at the College of Charleston and shot into national headlines. Peter Singer, a philosophy professor at Princeton, was giving a lecture titled, “Rethinking Life and Death”. He had drawn protests with his belief that parents and doctors should be allowed to kill newborns with drastic disabilities, like the absence of higher brain function or an incompletely formed spine. He disagreed with letting “nature take its course.” He said that infants, like other animals, are neither rational nor self-conscious.

Johnson had been sent to the lecture by Not Dead Yet, a national disability-rights organization. She took the microphone during a question and answer period after Singer’s lecture and confronted him. Later in The New York Times, she wrote, “To Singer, it’s pretty simple: disability makes a person ‘worse off’. Are we ‘worse off’? I don’t think so.” She added, “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.”

As a result of her challenge in Charleston, Johnson was invited to debate Professor Singer at Princeton on March 25, 2002. That debate and the original confrontation in Charleston were the subject of an 8000 word New York Times article, bringing Johnson and the disability rights movement national attention. Laura Hershey, a disability rights activist, commented, “Millions of people by now have read that article and dozens of people have told me, ‘Wow, I never thought about it that way.’” In November 2003, Johnson wrote another Times Magazine article, “The Disability Gulag”. In it, she described institutions where “wheelchair people are lined up, obviously stuck where they’re placed” while “a TV blares, watched by no one.” She called for a major change from institutionalizing disabled people to publicly financing home care provided by family, friends and neighbors. “ I sometimes dare to dream that the gulag will be gone in a generation or two. But meanwhile the lost languish in the gulag.”

On June 25, 2008, The House of Representatives passed the amended Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) to expand civil rights for the disabled by a 402 to l7 margin. Lawmakers said they wanted to restore broad protections that Congress had intended to establish when it passed the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990. The 1990 law said “individuals with disabilities are a discrete and insular minority”, and the Supreme Court had cited this phrase in different decisions since then as a reason for limiting the definition of disability. This phrase was deleted from the new bill which calls for disability to be “construed broadly” to cover more physical and mental impairments.

The 1990 law prohibited an employer from discriminating against a qualified individual who had, or was perceived as having a disability, defined as physical or mental impairment that “substantially limits” one or more major life activities. In 2002, the Court had said, “these terms need to be interpreted strictly to create a demanding standard for qualifying as disabled.” A person has to have “an impairment that prevents or severely restricts the individual from doing activities that are of central importance to most people’s daily lives.”

The new bill passed by Congress would establish a less stringent standard, describing an impairment qualifying as a disability if it “materially restricts” a major life activity like seeing, hearing, eating, walking, reading or thinking. Lawmakers said that people with epilepsy, diabetes, cancer and cerebral palsy have been denied protection because the diseases could be controlled by medication or were in remission. The proposal changed that standard, stating that “an impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active.” It also said that courts in general should not consider the effects of “mitigating measures” such as drugs, hearing aids and artificial limbs.

Representative James Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin, a major sponsor of the bill, said that the Supreme Court had “chipped away at the protections” of the l990 law. Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York said, “thousands of men and women in uniform are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with serious injuries, including the loss of limbs and head trauma.” He stressed that changes to the l990 law were urgently needed. The Senate passed a similar bi-partisan measure with Senator Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, leading the effort.

The amended ADA gave people with disabilities greater access to courtrooms, theaters, hotels, stadiums, retail stores, swimming pools, play grounds and golf courses. More than seven million businesses and government agencies were affected by requirements, including: ramps or lifts into auditoriums and courts for wheelchair accessibility, the location of light switches, the height of retail service counters and the use of “service animals” such as dogs in public places. The Justice Department said the need to make the environment more accessible was greater because the Iraq war was “creating a new generation of young men and women with disabilities.” John Wodatch, chief of the disability rights section of the Justice Department looked at the entire population when he said “Disability is inherent in the human condition. The vast majority of individuals who are fortunate enough to reach an advanced age will benefit from the proposed requirements.”

Harriet Johnson died on June 7, 2008 at age 50. Her lifelong advocacy for the disabled, built support for the amended ADA law when it was debated and passed . She would have been proud of the Congress, the Justice Department and the President for expanding the rights and protections for Americans with disabilities.

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Parents Revolt Against Testing Run Amok!

Parents Revolt Against Testing Run Amok!

Unless you have children or grand children in the public schools, you may have missed the rebellion of parents against the pervasive testing that is part of the Common Core accountability movement. Educators across the country have joined in, repealing graduation requirements, cutting back on the number of required exams and putting off evaluation of the Common Core Standards. Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education posted a blog in August, that “testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools.” He added that teachers needed more time to adapt to new standards and tests.

In Gainesville, Florida, Susan Bowles, a kindergarten teacher, told the parents of her pupils on her Facebook page that she would refuse to give them the state-ordered diagnostic reading tests. There were two basic problems: Only one computer in the class would mean children taking the tests one-by-one. In addition, students were unable to work the mouse! She estimated three weeks of teaching time if she gave the tests. Shortly after her posting, the state education commissioner suspended that test for younger pupils. In addition, going public on the Internet sparked parents and teachers across the state giving voice to their problems with the avalanche of testing at all levels.

“My third grader loves school, but I can’t get her out of the car this year,” Dawn LaBorde told a parents meeting in Royal Palm Beach. She said through tears that her son a junior in high school is so shaken, “I had to take him to the doctor. He can’t sleep, but he’s tired. He can’t eat, but he’s hungry.” Florida endorsed the Common Core Standards early. Now parents are meeting and decrying the avalanche of tests from district, state and federal levels.

Common Core Standards were created by the National Governors Association in 2009 with the purpose to “provide a consistent clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them.” In addition, “the standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers.” There are two main components: English Language Arts and Mathematics. During 2010, 44 of the states and the District of Columbia adopted the Common Core. Since then, several states voted to repeal or replace Common Core. Science and Social Studies were not included in the original Common Core. Next Generation Science Standards were released in April, 2013 and were adopted by many states. The purpose of the Standards and the selection of main Components appear to be sensible and valid. However the emphasis has been on measuring results by standardized tests rather than the teaching and learning in the classrooms.

Florida tests students more frequently than most other states, with many schools dedicating 60 to 80 days out of the l80 day school year to standardized testing. Former Governor Jeb Bush began standardized testing and an A to F grading system for schools. In late August, Governor Rick Scott of Florida called for Education Commissioner Pam Stewart to review standardized tests, many of them required by the state. Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Miami -Dade County Schools, the fourth -largest district in the nation, has made his position on testing clear. “This is too much, too far, too fast, and it threatens the fabric of real accountability.”

When I read of the kindergarten children whose small fingers were unable to control the mouse, I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh. It has been many years since I taught in the public schools at the eighth grade level as my first teaching job. I heard from the other teachers the challenges that kindergarten, first and second grade teachers faced. The last thing they needed was to be forced to administer batteries of standardized tests to their pupils. Of course, in those years, reading wasn’t taught until first grade. Pre-school was unknown for most children and kindergarten was where they became socialized and learned to play and share and work together with other children. Today, most schools teach reading in the first grade since so many children attend pre-school or learn the basics from television, iPads or computers. Head Start has been an important program for children from low-income homes where both parents or a single parent are working two jobs. They rarely have the time to read to their children or even have long conversations. Language skills can lag in the home with few books and little communication. It is very doubtful if standardized testing solves the problems these teachers and their pupils face.

Over the years, as I became deeply immersed in teaching at the college level and kept abreast of every new development in the world of education, I became convinced that the essential answer to student success lay in the quality of teaching in every classroom. We each remember, I am sure, certain teachers from our elementary, secondary or college years. They captured our interest and imagination. They inspired us to do our best work in their classrooms. Their methods differed. Their personalities differed. They may have been men or women. We looked forward to their classes. They usually took an interest in their students. There were tests, of course, short answer and essay. Very few standardized except for pre-college . Schools of Education today bear the responsibility to prepare their students for the real world of teaching in urban and rural areas. Hopefully, they are doing more than teaching them to administer standardized tests.

In November, 2011, I wrote a column describing several highly creative teachers. Durham, New Hampshire was one of the school districts. “The main emphasis at the Oyster River Middle School is on creative learning and teaching. Linda Rief, who has taught English for 24 years, gives her 8th grade students a semester-long “genre” project. They choose a subject areas like mysteries, read novels by classic authors such as Agathie Christie, and study how a mystery is constructed with characters, plot, suspense, foreshadowing and denouement. Then, they write their own mystery novel. Science students have built an underwater robotic vessel on research in design, specifications and operational requirements. Social Science classes have reenacted the Boston Massacre of the American rebels by the British soldiers with appropriate study and background information. On state mandated tests, 85 percent of the students are rated “proficient”. On the three SAT tests that juniors and seniors took for college entry and placement, the Oyster River students in 2011 averaged 1670, 111 points above the state average and 170 points above the national average. Jay Richard, the principal has described Oyster River as “a textbook free school”, where the teachers’ original lessons are superior to the packaged curriculums. It’s hard to argue educational methodology and testing for accountability with scores like that!”

Thank You, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton!

Thank You, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton!

Every time I go to our polling station, as I did on November 4th for the 2014 mid-term elections, I see the women behind the desks and waiting in line and think of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Their lives were different in many ways, yet they were the two most influential leaders of the drive for women’s suffrage in the United States.

On July l9, l848 , Stanton, a 32 year old judge‘s daughter married to an abolitionist , organized the first “convention to discuss the social, civil , and religious condition and rights of women” in the small village of Seneca Falls, New York. At that time, women were second class citizens by law and custom. Girls could not attend college, married women had no legal rights to their property, their children , divorce or the safety of their bodies. Stanton, who became known as the philosopher of the women’s movement, had drafted a Declaration of Sentiments modeled on Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. It began, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal…. (although) the history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward women.”

The radical document listed thirteen different denials of rights by men . The first was the most radical, “ He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.” The last paragraph was the call for action: “Now, in view of this entire disenfranchisement of one-half of the people of this country, their social and religious degradation — in view of the unjust laws above mentioned, and because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States.” Two days of heated discussion and debate ensued with separate votes for each of the thirteen “injuries”. The closest vote was on the first with only a two vote margin of victory. “Lizzie, thou wilt make us ridiculous”, said one of the women. Finally, one hundred people signed their endorsement, seventy women and thirty men including Frederick Douglass, former slave and leading abolitionist.

When the results of the Seneca Falls Convention became known, there were angry charges of “Insurrection!” in the press and from the pulpits of churches. Call for the vote was labeled ” Heresy!” Elizabeth Cady Stanton was delighted. During the following years, as the drive for women’s suffrage grew, Stanton continued to write stirring documents and to speak to assembled groups throughout the country to advance the cause of Women’s Suffrage. She did this while raising seven children, running her household and assisting her husband in his abolitionist work. She was a short, sweet faced women with a wealth of curls framing her face. She did not have the look of a fire-eating radical.

A few years after the convention, Stanton met Susan B. Anthony on a street corner in Seneca Falls. They were introduced by mutual friends and almost immediately a friendship formed that was to grow into one of the fabled working relationships in American history.
Anthony was a Quaker school teacher from Rochester, New York who dedicated her entire life to the cause of Women’s Suffrage. She and Stanton shared the same passionate beliefs and each had the perfect balance to the other’s talents. Stanton was the thinker and writer; Anthony was the organizer and implementer. Stanton wrote in her memoirs that she “forged the thunderbolts and Anthony fired them.”

Anthony was five years younger than Stanton and already seasoned in temperance and abolition reform when they met. However, after just two conversations, she quickly devoted all her time and energy to the suffrage cause. There were many women during the decades of the l9th century who traveled and organized across the country, but none compared to Anthony. Although she had a family home in Rochester, she was rarely there. She lived a driven life and it showed in her lean, spare appearance, black dresses and face — the visage of a revolutionary. Anthony was a controlled personality, wary of open displays of emotion or esteem. Yet, she did form many lasting friendships through the years with women who spoke of her warmly as “Susan”. It is of note that Stanton always called her “Susan” , but Anthony called her “Mrs. Stanton” throughout their lives.

There were many women during the decades of the l9th century who traveled and organized across the country, but none compared to Anthony. In old age, Stanton said of Susan B. Anthony, “There is scarce a town, however small, from New York to San Francisco, that has not heard her ringing voice.” Vivian Gornick, a historian, described Anthony’s work, “ She was famous for being able to arrive in a town in the morning, hire the hall within hours, plaster the place with flyers, and have 500 people at the meeting in the evening. She organized every national convention for years on end, and could be depended on not only to solve every problem that arose, but also to think of the kinds of details that might preoccupy a director of theatricals.”

After the Civil War, when the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1870, suffrage was granted to Negro men. Woman’s Suffrage leaders were told to wait. They denounced the amendment and formed the National Women’s Suffrage Association. Two years later, in the l872 national election, radical women tried to vote. Susan B. Anthony and twelve women were able to vote in a small precinct. They were arrested four hours later. Anthony demanded hand cuffs and was led away to jail. She had become a well known leader and the trial was national news. Newspapers called her a “martyr”.

Anthony was tried for the crime of voting by an all-male jury and a male judge. She was not allowed to bear witness since women were considered “incompetent” to be witnesses. The judge had written his decision beforehand and took it from his pocket to read after the so-called trial was over. “Guilty! ” was his decision. She would be fined $100 plus costs of the trial. He then said, “Does the prisoner have anything to say?” Susan B. Anthony rose from her seat and fixed her burning eyes upon him, replying, “I shall never pay the fine! Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God!” His name is lost, but her words will forever define her unbroken spirit.

Hundreds, then thousands of women became active in the Suffrage movement in the 20th century. Alice Paul, 28, a shy Quaker from New Jersey, became radicalized in London when she was jailed and force fed with the Suffragists there. She returned to organize the American suffrage campaign. In l913, 8,000 women came to D.C. from across the country to march in a rousing parade that included women on horseback, floats and huge banners that read, “We Demand an Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” Dressed in white and singing, they marched in formation to the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue. They were met by mobs of jeering men who blocked the street and attacked them. The police did not protect them and over one hundred were hospitalized.

After World War I broke out, heroic Suffragists picketed the White House peacefully for Woodrow Wilson’s support. They were labeled traitors and finally jailed for “obstructing traffic”. Alice Paul and other women went on a hunger strike in jail and were force fed for days, then beaten during a “night of terror”. After their release, Wilson agreed to support their cause. The two houses of Congress held heated debates over a federal amendment that did reach the needed two thirds vote. Then the crucial struggle began to attain three quarters of the state legislatures for passage. Success came in Tennessee by one vote of a 24 year old member who changed his vote from Nay to Yea on the advice of his mother’s letter.

Neither Elizabeth Cady Stanton nor Susan B. Anthony lived to see the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in l920. “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton died in l902 at age 87. She had a picture of Anthony on her casket among the flowers. Susan B. Anthony died in l906 at age 86. Ten thousand women and men filed past her simple Quaker casket in Rochester, New York. The Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution is known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment.

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Texting to Death!

Texting to Death!

Several months ago, while driving on Rte. 9 at the 45 mile an hour speed limit, I found my car being followed much too closely by another vehicle. When I glanced in the rear view mirror, I could see the head of the young male driver looking down for some seconds and then up —repeatedly. It only took me a few of the down -up motions to realize he was either reading or sending a text message. I signaled right and turned off the road at the first available opportunity. Has this ever happened to you? I can state unequivocally that it’s a pretty scary experience. As if you are foreseeing a serious rear-end collision about to happen. And you are driving the car that is going to be crashed into.

Texting is a relatively new phenomenon that is growing at exponential speed. People text while taking walks, sitting on buses and subways. eating in restaurants and riding bicycles. It’s the latest technological advance in communication. You don’t have to call. Just send a text message. Only your thumbs will know the difference.

Ever since the arrival of cell phones, studies have proven that talking on cell phones while driving is dangerous. This is true whether the phone is hand-held or not. The diversion of attention from the road is the key factor and distraction occurs whether one hand or both are off the wheel. When the driver becomes engaged in conversation, either civil or heated, there is a loss of concentration and observation of other drivers and traffic signs.

Texting is emerging as even more dangerous than using a cell phone according to recently released studies. The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute measured the time drivers took their eyes from the road to send or receive text messages. The l8 month study followed more than l00 drivers of long-haul trucks, whose cabs had been outfitted with video cameras. They were tracked for three million miles as they delivered frozen food, furniture and other goods across the country. The cost of $6 million was funded by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, whose mission is the improvement of safety in trucks and buses.

The study found that when the drivers were sending or receiving text messages, they typically took their eyes off the road for five seconds. At normal highway speeds, five seconds translates into the length of a football field in distance. The resultant collision risk was 23 times greater when they were texting. Rick Hanowski, who oversaw the study, said, “If you’re not watching the road for five seconds, it’s a crash waiting to happen.” Tom Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech Institute said of texting while driving, “You should never do this. It should be illegal.”

At present, 36 states do not ban texting while driving; 14 states do, including California, Alaska, Louisiana and New Jersey. Texting is so new that many police departments are not collecting data on accidents related to texting or talking on cell phones. It is important to note that researchers of other studies said that although trucks take longer to stop and are less maneuverable, the findings applied to drivers of cars as well.

At the University of Utah, a study was conducted over 18 months with college students texting while in a driving simulator. The results showed an eight times greater crash risk when texting than not texting. The study, submitted for publication in The Journal for Human Factors, found that drivers took their eyes off the road for around five seconds — the same length of time as the truckers.
David Strayer, a professor who was the co-author of the Utah Report, saw two possible reasons for the lower risk of a crash than the truckers study: trucks are harder to maneuver and stop, and college students might be better at multitasking. Strayer commented, “You’re off the charts in both cases. It’s crazy to be doing it.”

Virginia Tech conducted a follow-up study with the focus on texting among teenagers driving light vehicles. Preliminary results from this study show risk levels for teenage texters about the same as for the truck drivers. Earlier field and laboratory studies that delved into drivers talking on cell phones while driving showed a crash risk as four times more likely. And a Virginia Tech study that videotaped car drivers found that dialing the cell phone brought a crash three times more likely.

Researchers have done studies on all types of driving distractions: eating, drinking, combing one’s hair, putting on lipstick, turning to talk to someone in the back seat. They do not agree about whether field studies are more valuable than laboratory simulations. However, they do agree that texting is a much greater risk to drivers than other distractions. The AAA Foundation of Traffic Safety published polling data that shows 87 percent of people believe that drivers texting or e-mailing are a “very serious” safety threat. This is close to the 90 percent who consider drunken drivers a threat. 2,501 drivers were surveyed this past spring and 95 percent called texting “unacceptable behavior”. It is ironic that 21 percent of drivers said they had recently texted or e-mailed while driving. About 50 percent of the drivers 16 to 24 said they had texted while driving compared to 22 percent of drivers 35 to 44.

Robert Smith, 22, a recent college graduate says he does text while driving, even though he agrees it is a serious risk. “I put the phone on top of the steering wheel and text with both thumbs”, he said, describing exchanges of ten messages or more at a time. “I’ll look up and realize there’s a car sitting there and swerve around it.” He was not part of the AAA survey and said he was surprised at the findings. However, he was not convinced to stop texting. “I’m pretty sure that someday it’s going to come back and bite me.” The question his comment raises goes far beyond what will happen to him. It is whether his texting will prove dangerous or deadly to another driver and passengers when he crashes into their car.