“Disability is not remote,” remarked award-winning journalist John Hockenberry, encapsulating the important message of his President’s Forum Address. Hockenberry, who has been in a wheelchair since a car accident at age 19 claimed the use of his legs, joined the Colleges’ month-long Disability in the Arts Festival on Thursday night. Since the moment he emerged from rehabilitation more than 30 years ago, Hockenberry has remained passionate about obtaining equality for those with disabilities.
With the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, equality seemed to be the solution for those who had struggled to navigate life, he said. But despite the ADA, even tasks such as accessing public buildings and finding parking and restrooms remain a challenge. He called the legislation toothless, unenforced, and often requiring a lawsuit in order to get action.
As a foreign news correspondent during South Africa’s tumultuous struggle with apartheid, Hockenberry realized that in order for a movement to be successful everyone must be impacted.
“In South Africa, equality of the races involved everyone changing,” noted Hockenberry, who highlighted how the racial conflict in the U.S. seemed to play out in specific places – not in the majority of the country – something Hockenberry referred to as “divergent experiences.” Not unlike, he noted, the enforcement of the ADA.
“This raises the fundamental question, which is – what is your stake in this social change?” said Hockenberry. “If your stake is not clearly articulated, the change possible is limited.”
Hockenberry believes that we must discover how we are affected in the struggle for equality – and how we affect others – and we must acknowledge a connection with people with disabilities in order for those with disabilities to obtain true equality in our society. “Every one of you must realize that your proximity to disability is closer than you think,” said Hockenberry.
Even Hockenberry continues to be shocked by this revelation. In one recent instance, he realized that his young son, who has just learned to walk, is as tied to disability as Hockenberry himself. “My proximity to disability is the same as my children’s,” he posited.
When Hockenberry considered his personal experience with disability, he believed at first, he had in a way, “invented” it – created his own invincible outlook on the accident that left him paralyzed. However, he soon uncovered dozens of memories of time spent with his grandfather who had lost his arm in a factory accident.
“The experience for my grandfather was not getting his arm taken off, but was the experience of what came later,” recalled Hockenberry. “That was part of my experience; so the sense of remoteness in my life was an absurdity. It is up to us to supply meaning to our connections with others.” People need to have such experiences with disability in order for our country to progress.
In fact, Hockenberry believes it is those with disabilities who show greatest promise for the future. Those living with disabilities possess a stronger sense of that central human attribute – adaptability. “Any expectation we have of tomorrow is absurd. The next big thing is change,” remarked Hockenberry. “It is those with disabilities who will be ready for tomorrow.”
Following his talk President Mark D. Gearan commended Hockenberry’s leadership in the movement and his thoughtful reflection. “He has given us much to think about,” Gearan said. “He has built upon a community of inclusion at HWS that should be a hallmark in this country.”
Currently, Hockenberry serves as co-host of “The Takeaway,” a radio broadcast for Public Radio International and New York Public Radio, and is a contributing broadcaster to both “The DNA Files” and “The Infinite Mind.” Hockenberry has been the recipient of four Peabody Awards, four Emmy Awards, an Edward R. Murrow Award, and a Casey Medal for his work at ABC and NBC. During his tenure at NBC, Hockenberry served as a correspondent for “Dateline,” and hosted two of his own programs on MSNBC, “Hockenberry” and “Edgewise.” More information on Hockenberry can be found at http://www2.hws.edu/article-id-14133