February 5, 2008
Bush selects local advocate for access board
President George W. Bush recently appointed J.R. Harding, a Tallahassee program administrator at the Florida Department of Education, to a second term on the United States Access Board, the commission that reports to the president on compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The news, though significant because even in the capital of the nation’s fourth most populous state presidential appointments are rare, does not begin to tell the story — either about a remarkable man or accessibility for people with physical limitations nearly a generation after passage of the landmark federal legislation aimed at giving it to them.
For a long time now Harding has been on a mission, and it is clear even from a brief meeting he is a formidable foe and adept advocate. Even a quick look at the archives of the Tallahassee Democrat brings up Harding, photographed protesting his inability to get into and around the then-new Leon County Courthouse.
Like many such missions, Harding’s started unexpectedly on a day when the shocking happened.
Oddly enough, Harding is a champion for the disabled and a quadriplegic today because he decided to walk away from a fight. He was 17, a self-described “5-letter” athlete at Culver Military Academy . Culver is an upper crust military academy founded by Harrison Culver in 1894 “for the purpose of thoroughly preparing young men for the best colleges, scientific schools and businesses of America ,” the school’s Web site says. It is located in an Indiana town that also bears Culver’s name. In addition to Harding, alumni include Robert Vlasic (chairman of the Campbell Soup Company), Hal Holbrook (noted stage and screen actor) and scores of CEOs, lawyers, jurists, bankers and the like. It is a place renowned for accomplishment.
But on this day Harding is engaged in a pursuit common among teenage boys: scrapping over a girl. Teammates were involved, so Harding had decided to walk away when a hit from behind removed that capacity forever.
“I knew I was paralyzed in that instant,” he recalled recently of the day his back was broken. “I had no feeling, no pain, no nothing.”
Almost immediately the Harding fighting spirit kicked in. While still in the hospital, barely finished with analysis the injury was permanent he told his Army general officer father his goal was to graduate from Culver with his class, a mission he accomplished.
Since that day, Harding has required assistance to function, emerging into a world without secrets with the most intimate functions of his life subject to work by others. He is paralyzed from just below his shoulder blades to his toes. Each day an assistant dresses him, helps him with bodily functions, sits him in his electric-powered wheelchair.
Then, off he goes to face the world, often to days that require doing battle with large systems on behalf of others with a myriad of challenges and impairments.
While Harding is gregarious and social by nature and seemingly infinitely patient with his own limitations, he becomes easily agitated when confronted with barriers others must face to function. It is this flight to fight that has brought him roles on nearly a dozen boards and commissions over the years, including the U.S. Accessibility Board, the Florida Governor’s Commission on Disabilities, the Florida Building Commission, the Transportation Disadvantaged Commission and a five-year stint on the Governor’s ADA Working Group.
Harding’s career as an advocate began even before the ADA ‘s passage.
“I’d get hired when people were in trouble,” he said. “It began before ADA when you didn’t see many disabled people. We were the family secret.”
He characterizes his work today as one of finding “public-private solutions” and “removing that burden so more of us can work.”
People in his position — that is, those who need daily assistance to function — have to take home extremely high salaries just to be able to work, he said.
“Until we clear the $100,000 (barrier), life just beats the snot out of us,” he said.
He gives himself as an example. He has to hire help from the time he is gotten up in the morning until he is put to bed at night. Annual cost for that alone is more than $30,000. Plus, other rather mundane things for others can represent huge costs. For example, homeownership with maintenance and even mowing the lawn come with expenses he must pay.
“It’s like waking up in Groundhog Day,” he said, “the same thing every day.” Reference is made to the commercial film in which the main character awakens to relive the same day repeatedly.
Harding’s life experience adds reality to determinations about the adequacy of buildings to accommodate persons with disabilities. He speaks passionately about inadequate restrooms, slopes too steep to be traversed by a wheelchair and the like. Even so, he acknowledges that those not dealing with physical limitations often cannot readily understand the need for ADA requirements.
Contact Business Matters Editor Steve Liner at (850) 599-2238 or email@example.com.
Business Matters Editor, Tallahassee Democrat