Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Mary Johnson: ‘Write’ Stuff for the Disability Movement

Is the title of Mike Ervin's essay in Independence Today about Mary Johnson, the founder and editor of the Disability Rag. It includes a recent interview in which Johnson discussed the influences in her life, how The Disability Rag came into being and the role it played in shaping the culture. Here is an excerpt:
Independence Today: What occurrences in your life helped shape your political and disability consciousness?

Mary Johnson: I came of age in the 1960s, and so I was attuned to civil rights, women's rights, etc. I went to a small local college and wasn't really an activist in any way. I got a degree in English, worked for a time doing reporting for weekly papers, did some PR work for nonprofits. My involvement in disability rights started when a friend asked me if I'd be willing to serve on the board of a newly formed group. This was in the early 1970s, and as you know, nonprofits often want people with PR backgrounds on their boards. I said OK but didn't really know what I was getting into. The director, a woman with CP, was starting the first "consumer group" of disabled people in Louisville. I got a real education from her. She explained to me that disabled people -- "handicapped adults" was the term used back then -- had a right to transportation, housing, etc. It was like the proverbial light bulb going off, and I was hooked. I was particularly appalled that nobody seemed aware of any of this, and since I wanted really to be a journalist -- and hoped someday to land a good job on a newspaper -- I guess I got into investigating it like a journalist would.

IT : How did this lead to The Rag ?

MJ: Several years later, I was still involved in what we were just starting to call "disability rights" in Louisville. Our group had gotten VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) volunteers and was doing some community organizing, but it was clear that we weren't reaching enough people. As is even the case now, the big problem was transportation. People couldn't get to organizing meetings! Our VISTAs were really into "consciousness raising" as a concept, so I got the idea of putting out some sort of a publication, and we called it The Disability Rag . It was just local; it was just one 11x17 sheet folded. But people really took to it! After a couple of years we made it bigger, we incorporated an organization -- The Advocado Press -- to publish it. Cass Irvin, one of the incorporators, decided it should be circulated nationally and
spearheaded that effort. That effort, which I have to admit I wasn't too interested in, was a big success by the measure of the day. People seemed to want it, and it became popular in activist circles. I think the time was right. It was just at the time of the grass-roots disability rights movement taking off. A couple of years later, ADAPT started and moved to the national stage and The Rag was there to report on all this.
The first edition of the Disabilty Rag, which chronicled and fueled the emerging disability rights and independent living movements, came out in January 1980. It ceased publication in 1996 but started again as the Ragged Edge in January 1997. The print version of Ragged Edge ceased publication in 2004. The Advocado Press (, which published The Disability Rag and Ragged Edge , still sells a few books written by Johnson and others.

Mike Ervin is a freelance writer and member of American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today, a group that works for the civil rights of people with disabilities.