Lawyer without limbs
"I'm committed to making life better for as many people as possible. And I'm going to love life and have fun along the way. That is my motto," said Mr. John Kemp after thinking briefly to answer my question "What is your motto?"
Mr. Kemp graduated from Georgetown University in 1971 and from Washburn University School of Law in 1974 and became a lawyer. And currently he works at a law firm in Washington D.C.
He is missing both his arms and legs. He was born without them. The cause is unknown, but could have been due to the morning sickness drug his mother was taking when she was pregnant.
He uses an electric wheelchair by controlling a speed lever with his artificial arm. There are two signs on it – the closer one is a turtle and the further one is a rabbit. "Pushing the lever towards Rabbit, it gains speed. It goes up to 10km per hour," he proudly said with a grin, "It is much faster than walking." He uses this scooter as his legs to go around the US and around the world.
His job diversifies a lot. One as a lawyer, he is a principal at Pwers, Pyles, Sutter & Verville, P.C. This firm is well known in the US, and they handle medical, social welfare, insurance and health matters. He works here for the rights of the Challenged and their social level improvement.
He currently serves on the Medicaid Commission as well as the State Department's Advisory Committee of Persons with disabilities that guide the Secretary of State.
Also he contributed much toward the establishment of the ADA in 1990. Along with co-founding the American Association of People with Disability (AAPD), he serves on the Boards of Directors of many leading disability and non-profit organizations. And between these busy schedules, he energetically goes around not only the US but all over the world for lectures.
With such a major disability, how can he be so successful and energetic? He answers this question very clearly - "It's my father"
Mr. Kemp and Ms. Takenaka
He lost his mother to ovarian cancer when he was only a year and three month old. With three children – John, his 5yr and 3month old sisters – his father must felt totally at a loss.
But his father didn't run away from this situation. "Every parents knows that it takes a lot of work to raise their children even when they are healthy. It is not un-common that a family goes through a divorce or other very difficult time if child is born with a disability. But my father stayed and fought for us. Because of him, we stayed as a family."
His father always talked to John of his vision. "You will be a full member of society. You will do just fine at school with other kids. You will go to college or a university".
Thanks to his father's word, young John's daily life changed as a big project. For instance – Shaving. "If you get a job in the future, you'll need to shave. So, you need to learn how to do it now" To John, this discipline of shaving practice formed his future view of his independence at work. His father's words "Within a family, you are equal, and you will live normally" helped him to envision the project of equal life at the school and at work with others.
Of course sometime he felt down, and pressured by his father's encouragement. And he did have fear for his future also. But his father did not spoil him.
John went to regular school, and he feared how other kids would accept him. And as expected, his classmates teased him and gave him a hard time. One day, his father explained the difference between having a "Disability" and "Handicap"
"Disability" is that some part of body or organ's function is missing or damaged. In your case, its missing limbs. "Handicap" is from an outside source and has nothing to do with person. For instance, if you can't use your hand, you can't open the door. Or can't overcome the curve etc. Also, it includes the situation that one feels bad or sad because of other people's negative attitude.
After explaining these situations, his father tells him "You are born with it so it is not your fault. Classmates' giving you hard time is not your fault either. It's their fault. So no need to feel bad about it" But he also tells him that "You have to become independent because other people not always will feel sorry and help you" This was how he learned and his internal development matured.
"So I became to like myself. I like myself as a person, I like myself as disabled, and I like my contribution to society. I really like each of me, and I also developed my confidence."
You feel fulfillment when you challenge something and accomplish it. By doing what you are responsible to, you develop self-respect. But you need a clear goal, or you get unnecessary discouragement. Without making your responsibility boundary clear, you'll become discouraged. His father's thoughtful judgments lead John in the right direction.
"Although.." John continues, "My father taught me so many lessons, there is one more very important element of my life. That is a happy family. Our family always had a laugh. It was a very happy family, and I love to be with them. All of my friends know this but I love to laugh, and love to talk. Because my father built such a family, I also became happy and positive."
His father is 87 years old now. He shows some symptoms of Parkinson's disease and has difficulty walking. But his head is very clear.
To overcome the barrier between Non-challenged and Challenged
A happy starting point is respecting oneself and taking to oneself. Who has the value which is not spread on itself and there is a right which is useful as a social member.
The pourpose of his trip to Japan this time was to speak at "The 11th Challenged Japan Forum." The word "Challenged" is used in US in place of "Handicapped." It means "One who is Challenged by God – you can take this test and can overcome it." Host of this forum is Prop Station (Non Profit Social Welfare organization). The goal of this organization is to change the current social welfare policy's view toward the Challenged, such as they are weaklings who need protection and segregation, and form a new society where they can be independent and can contribute to it.
Prop Station's CEO Nami Takenaka (aka "Nami-ne") and Mr. Kemp have been close friends for many years, and that's how Mr. Kemp camr to visit Japan this time.
Mr. Kemp points out that "Education" is the key to overcome the barrier between the Challenged and current society. Since society is not open for accepting the Challenged, they tend to stay away from it, thus eliminating their possibility. At the same time, even though society does not mean to discriminate, since they don't know how to handle the Challenged, they feel uneasy and suspicious. Ignorance is a part of the reason for not accepting the Challenged. "Speakers for this year's Forum are from Sweden, Thailand and US. All of us went through inclusive education. And that is very important. In my case, I was the only disabled child in class. Classmates around me learned that "What life is like with a disability" At the same time, I learned "What life is like as non-disabled" by studying with them. So, we learned the reality of how we can live together. If we have this type of experience growing up, we won't have any trouble to get along with each other."
Mr. Kemp emphasized the harmful effect of Challenged and non-Challenged kids' going to separate school / facility while growing up, since it is very difficult to remove the barrier once it is put up.
"Children appreciate differences and accept differences much faster than adults. Children can accept the physical differences as "Personality" and accept it easily. So you have to start the inclusive education as kids."
When I asked Mr. Kemp, "what kind of advice would he give to inflexible minded adults to understand this situation?", he laughed loudly and nodded "Good question!"
"They need to know that a disability is a natural consequences of living. As we grow older, sooner or later, we will become people with disabilities. And we need to learn to live with it"
Some US data suggests that in the US population, a person will encounter a type of disibility lasting on average about 13 years of an individuals life. This is an inevitable matter that has to be dealt with by even those who avoid disability issues.
Everybody can be "Happy"
Mr. Kemp has two major activity goals. One is to educate the Challenged on becoming leaders in society. He works hard at educating the Challenged on entering leadership positions in politics and businesses. Another goal is to heighten their awareness of politics. They tend not to vote since they feel they are not included. So, they need to realize that they are citizens like anybody else, and need to vote to reflect their view.
What needs to be done so that the Challenged can contribute to society? When we discussed this issue, Mr. Kemp's eyes lit up and said, "I think the greatest liberating moment was when I felt that I contributed to the independence of the disabled. Helping them to get a job, get employed, and provide opportunities for education. And I want to give them an opportunity to help them become entrepreneurs and take leadership in the workplace."
Lastly, I asked Mr. Kemp "What is happiness?" He smiled while saying "It is a difficult question", then answered, "I think it starts with liking and respecting yourself. And feel you are worthy, and rightfully belong in the society. And to earn the respect and trust of families and friends. To be independent, taxpaying, being self sufficient, to be a contributing member of the society. And to have fun!" Also he said, "Happiness comes with an understanding of who I am, and the relationships I have with others. And understanding of spirituality around it." True happiness has nothing to do with materialism nor disability. So anybody can be happy. That is why Mr. Kemp is always up beat and never loses hope.
I truly believe that he will keep contributing his life for the happiness of many others - with his father's guidance and spirit in him.