John Burke interviewed Jennifer Justice at StoryCorps for the Disability Visibility Project™ at StoryCorps San Francisco on August 28, 2014. In this clip, Jennifer Justice talks about living with disabilities, her mother having polio as a child, enduring multiple craniofacial surgeries in high school, experiencing job discrimination, finding a disability community and being inspired to become an activist.
[Instrumental music – twangy guitar, bluegrass / Southern style]
John Burke: What is your earliest memory involving disability?
Jennifer Justice: I remember seeing, you know, that my mom was on TV talking about polio. She was talking about her experience as a kid in 1945. She was talking about her crutch and how she used it to walk and get around. She had to be treated in Atlanta and be away from home for weeks and weeks. My grandparents had to travel by train from Rome, Georgia so it was about an hour to get to visit her. And they could only visit once a week.
Jennifer Justice: My grandmother was a great advocate for my mom. When my mom came home there was no physical therapist that came to your house. They would just send the parents home with sheets of instructions on how to do exercises to help regain lung strength and muscle strength.
Jennifer Justice: Later on when my mom was in the second grade going into the third grade she had braces on her legs and the third grade classroom was on the second floor up a flight of stairs. And my grandmother convinced the principal to have the third grade classroom move downstairs. I guess that was her idea of a reasonable accommodation before there was such a thing as a reasonable accommodation.
[Instrumental music – Solo guitar, slow plucking, mysterious or tense tone]
John Burke: When do you first recall learning about your disabilities?
Jennifer Justice: It was when I was with the babysitter and um… I was maybe 3 or 4. I was playing around up by an upstairs window. I looked down and I could see the front sidewalk. I saw my Dad and my brother coming to pick me up. And I said ‘oh hey, Dad and Mark are here!’. The babysitter was really excited, she like ran down the stairs and she told my dad that I could see.
Jennifer Justice: And I thought that was kinda weird, you know, [chuckles] that that was a big deal to them. I must have asked about it on the way home and I just remember that feeling like a little uncomfortable. I felt like this was something that was supposed to be the norm, you know. But I didn’t know that my vision was so different than everybody else’s.
[Instrumental music fades]
Jennifer Justice: I felt pretty fine about it as a kid. It was a really small town so nobody really gave me a hard time. It wasn’t difficult until um… until high school when I started to have to have surgeries.
Jennifer Justice: So my first surgery was when I was three months old for my cleft lip. They did one side of my lip and then they did the other one when I was five months old. And then I had my cleft palate repaired when I was eighteen months old. The rest of the surgeries started when I was fifteen.
Jennifer Justice: I was having all of these reconstructive craniofacial surgery. I felt like I didn’t really have a say in any of it and that the adults were making all these pretty grand decisions about my body that I didn’t have any control over. It could be pretty intrusive sometimes. I mean, doctors would make comments like, you know, ‘we’re gonna give you a pretty face’. I had a female surgeon say they were gonna make me a kissable mouth. [brief laugh in disbelief] And I was just appalled.
[Instrumental music – slow, deliberate, solo guitar plucking, pensive tone]
Jennifer Justice: You know, I’m legally blind and deaf in my right ear and um… I have, you know, I have, scars around my mouth and stuff. I feel like my disabilities aren’t particularly self evident to people when they meet me because I don’t use a cane on a regular basis. I don’t know if it’s so much an invisible disability as an illegible disability.
John Burke: When did you first learn about the ADA?
[Instrumental music fades]
Jennifer Justice: I had lunch with another activist. I was telling her about some of the problems I had been having with, um, finding a job and the discrimination that I was encountering. And she was telling me about the ADA. I had had people, you know just say really inappropriate things to me during job interviews. I had one woman ask me if I was a little bit handicapped. [laughs]. I actually got the job anyway [laughs] but I was just floored that that was acceptable to say in an interview.
Jennifer Justice: I needed support in terms of not only the legislation but in terms of a community. You know, I became interested in disability activism. I wanted to be able to help people in that self determination process. Just being, just being yourself and loving who you are and thriving as a person with a disability as opposed to trying to hide it or overcome it.
[Instrumental music – happy, bright solo guitar]
Music Credits: (High Valley Hometown by Lobo Loco, Poissons Grions by cuicuitte featuring renoncule comme, Axletree by Quoin featuring Andrew Freidin, and This Mess is Mine by Picture Postcard. All songs are licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 International License)
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Disability Visibility Project™. (2017, January 16). DVP Interview: Jennifer Justice and John Burke. Retrieved from: https://disabilityvisibilityproject.com/2017/01/16/dvp-interview-jennifer-justice-and-john-burke/
A photo featuring Jennifer Justice and John Burke taken on August 28, 2014. A close-up portrait of a person on the left who appears to be a white and female with long blond hair. She is wearing a white sweater has visual scarring on her face and is smiling with teeth. To her right is a person who appears to be a white man with short dark hair and blue eyes. He is swearing a light blue collared button down shirt and smiling without teeth towards the camera.
Produced for the Disability Visibility Project™ by Yosmay del Mazo and Alice Wong with interviews recorded by StoryCorps, a national nonprofit whose mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the story of our lives. For more: www.storycorps.org and www.disabilityvisibilityproject.com