Florida Keys News
Posted: December 29, 2011
Reporter: Gwen Filosa
Email Address: firstname.lastname@example.org
While recounting his path through two near-fatal spinal cord injuries, addiction, and a lifelong fight to ensure civil rights for the disabled, J.R. Harding leveled with his audience.
Success in academia and advocacy didn’t come without its share of hard knocks and body blows, said Harding, 45, a national expert on disability who spoke Wednesday night to a crowd made up largely of men and women trying to rebuild lives nearly wrecked by alcoholism and drug addiction.
“I’ve been down to the pits of hell,” Harding told about 60 people at the Peace Covenant Presbyterian Church. “I’ve been disowned. I’ve had to beg for a second chance. I had to learn how to ask for help and I had to learn how to use that help.”
Harding, of Tallahassee, recalled in painful and personal detail how at age 16 his life changed in an instant, when a fistfight at prep school ended with the 6-foot-5-inch football standout being thrown to the ground.
His spinal cord snapped on that Indiana night in 1983, and he would learn what it is like to have doctors piece you back together, eat only through a tube through his nose, and find solace in booze and drugs.
Almost 30 years later, Harding remains a quadriplegic — who survived a second brush with death when he lost control of his van in 1998 — but is decades away from being hopeless or helpless.
“I rediscovered myself and found some peace,” said Harding. “I will always require assistance and compassion from others. I’m actually quite fortunate.”
With the help of family, friends and community, Harding said he was able to create his own career, one that has given him the ear of governors and presidents, whom he has advised on public policy for the disabled.
“He is somebody who is always there for other people,” said the Rev. Stephen Braddock, president of Florida Keys Outreach Coalition for the Homeless, which sponsored the talk. “He is a man who never quits, who speaks from experience, and who leads by example.”
Harding’s memoir, “Now What?” written with his wife, Erika Richards-Harding, was published this year, and he said the writing process made him feel completely exposed, but later gratified.
“Others need to know it can be done,” said Harding, who graduated from that prep school nine months after he was hospitalized and went on to earn a doctorate in education. “Because I helped myself, others were willing to help me.”
Harding said that discrimination against the disabled continues even 21 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which he credited for his career.
“Suddenly all the things I knew, that I have a right to participate in all parts of life, was now the law of the land,” said Harding, of ADA. “Most people don’t understand it, and much of public policy is antiquated.”
City, state and national leaders need disabled people to step forward and help guide them on discrimination that persists, he said. More than 70 percent of the disabled are unemployed, he added.
Earlier this year, Harding sued the Peabody Hotel in Orlando, saying the hotel’s $450 million addition violated some 400 ADA requirements.
On Wednesday before his talk, Harding said the federal suit is in the settlement process, and that it was the first time he went to the courts — and that he did so only after writing a letter to the hotel in 2005 after being unable to stay there due to ADA issues.
Harding said he had to book a room across the street, although he was speaking at a conference held at the Peabody. His letter received no response, he said, and when he returned to the hotel in 2010, blatant obstacles for disabled guests remained.
On Wednesday, Harding also shared photographs of him riding a SeaWorld roller coaster, scuba diving, fishing and seated at the helm of his sailboat.
He quoted the poet Robert Frost, who wrote that he could sum up everything he knew about life in three words: “It goes on.”
Harding provided the audience with balloons and then asked them to close their eyes and imagine a safe, peaceful place.
“Now pop that balloon,” Harding said, prompting tiny explosions of noise. “That’s how quickly life changes and those are the pieces of your life, or your friend’s life. Do you have the courage to put those pieces back together?”