"About Us" is a series of interviews with accomplished self-advocates in Florida.
It would be hard to find a more accomplished self-advocate in Florida than Dr. JR Harding of Tallahassee. Harding has spent most of his adult life as an advocate for people with disabilities, having worked tirelessly to improve access to things like transportation, employment, assistive technology, higher ed inclusion, financial independence, and other resources that assist people with disabilities to live as independently as possible, regardless of their limitations.
Harding was an accessibility pioneer in Florida. After breaking barriers at universities in other states, while working on his doctorate in education and public policy at Florida State University, he contributed to the university's Master Plan in 1998, which included accommodations for persons with disabilities for the first time. He also became the first student regent with a disability on the state board of regents (the body that governed all state universities at the time, now known as the board of governors).
Harding has held several national and state advisory appointments over the years related to disability advocacy and advancing the ADA, including serving as a contributing author to national voting system guidelines. He continues to serve the disability community today as an author, speaker, consultant, trainer, and sought-after disability expert, all while working full time at the Agency for Persons with Disabilities.
Question:How important is being a person
with a disability to your identity?
JR: After my initial injury in 1983, it took a long time for me to come to terms with it. Then, I realized I could utilize it in a new way. I had already lived as a person without a disability, so I found it easy to ask others for help when I needed it and seamlessly got a positive reaction and response from others. I decided to own it. I realized it’s who I am.
Question: When did you begin to identify as a self-advocate?
JR: I was a student at Wright State University and was around other people with disabilities who then became my peers. I learned I could date. What they taught me about resources like Vocational Rehabilitation changed my life. I was the first student with a disability at Western Kentucky University and I had to teach them how to interact with a student who had a disability. They had to build a dorm that had a ramp to accommodate my needs. I felt like a frontiersman of the Great Migration, grabbing pioneers and showing them the way. You need baby steps to build success to get to the big steps.
Question: What is your funniest disability-related story?
JR: The first time I had to use the restroom on a plane. I tried to warn some of the passengers and the flight attendant who were around me what I was about to do with the assistance of my PCA. I completed the task as inconspicuously as possible given the circumstances. As a result, one of the passengers that was nearby told me after that maybe she should’ve taken my advice and left her seat.
Question: What disability-related issue(s) is most significant to you?
JR: Employment, housing and transportation. These are the basic elements that allow us to enjoy life. In my opinion, without these three things, we don’t have anything.
Question: Can you share a time when your disability inspired a behavior, comment, or reaction that you found particularly obnoxious? What about a positive experience?
JR: To me, the negative would have to be the days that I have to spend lying in bed because I’m not being active. The positive would have to be every day that I can get up and teach, transform, or inspire others.
Question: If you could invite one person with a disability, living or dead, to have a conversation over coffee, who would it be? Why?
JR: I would like to sit down with Ed Roberts because he broke the disability barrier at Berkeley and I broke the barrier, 15 years later, at Western Kentucky University. I would not have been able to go had it not been for Ed.
Question: In 10 years, what would you most like to be different in the lives of persons with disabilities?
JR: Handicapping public policy that interferes with the lives of people with disabilities. Changes need to occur so that a person with a disability can be able to buy into disability insurance in case their disability becomes more severe throughout the course of their life.
Question: If you could pick one song as your theme song, what would you choose?
JR: It would have to be “Ramble On” by Led Zepplin.
I am deeply appreciative to Dr. Harding for spending time with me to complete this interview. It was a great experience learning about the impact his influence has had on molding issues and tackling various barriers people with disabilities face. Due to the obstacles and barriers he has faced and subsequently overcome, it’s resulted in him leading the way for people with disabilities throughout the state. The list of Harding’s accomplishments are too numerous to list but definitely worth learning about. For more information on JR Harding, visit his website at jrharding.com and take a look at this interview.
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