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A Tribute to Roland Johnson by Nancy Thaler

Many times in our lives we are so absorbed in our own activity of living that we fail to learn about some significant event, or it we do, do not comprehend its significance. This must not happen in our community in the case of Roland Johnson.

Roland Johnson, a nationally recognized advocate for people with disabilities, died on August 29th, 1994 of cardiac arrest. He was 48 years old and lived in Collegeville, Pennsylvania.

Roland was a hero and a leader, and it is important for those who did not have the pleasure of knowing him, working with him or hearing him speak, to know about him and what he has left us.

Roland lived with his family until age of 12, and was then admitted to Pennhurst Center. He experienced the frustration of losing his family because they did not have the knowledge and support to raise him, and the horror of institutional living. Roland’s spirit was powerful and he turned these experiences into compassion for families with children with disabilities and a passion to get everyone out of institutions and give people control over their lives.

Roland challenged his colleagues to take control over their lives. He was often heard in speeches to shout “Who’s in control? Are you in control or is the staff in control?” The challenge was also directed at the help givers; a wake-up call.

Roland was a pioneer. It is impossible to know the courage of a man who had slung at him the worst levels and insults imaginable, who suffered abuse and neglect, and who belonged to a group totally discounted by society, but who nevertheless stood up in public to speak for himself and his people.

Roland gave voice to the people. Roland made us listen. Roland changed how we think about disabilities. Roland showed us what forgiveness and generosity are, and Roland showed us what courage and dignity look like.

Other heros like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony passed from life to be forgotten for a time because they came from a group that was devalued by mainstream society, only to be discovered and valued by later generations. This does not have to happen to Roland Johnson.

If we care about all people and the struggle for social justice, we have to hold on to our heros and so hold Roland in our hearts…and create opportunities and support for others to speak, and then listen to them.

Sincerely,

Nancy R. Thaler

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