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 Article of Interest - Inspirational Stories

Thriving on Challenge
Attorney Focuses on Life, Not Disability
by T.T. Nhu, Mercury News, September 22, 2002
For more articles on disabilities and special ed visit www.bridges4kids.org


Jan Garrett was on a BART train when a large man loomed over her motorized wheelchair and demanded loudly: "What happened to you?"

She was taken aback. Usually people ignore her, although some may politely ask about about her condition: Garrett was born without arms or legs.

"I finally managed to say to him 'What happened to your manners?' which made some people applaud as the man walked away," said Garrett.

Garrett, an attorney and executive director of the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, refuses to be put on the defensive about herself and is not self-conscious about her disability. She is a happy and focused person who has a knack for making those around her feel at ease in spite of her startling appearance.

"Living in Berkeley I find that I'm not the most unusual person here," joked Garrett, who maneuvers her wheelchair by pushing on a joystick with her shoulder.

And who did she think was the most unusual person in Berkeley?

"Probably the pink man in a unitard on a unicycle," she replied.

Despite her encounter at the BART station, she welcomes the opportunity to tell people about her situation.

"I love to make presentations to tell my story about what it's like to be disabled. Sometimes it sucks and sometimes it's wonderful," she said. "We're maybe the highly evolved beings that you don't know about, and maybe there's a bigger reason we're here."

Sid Wolinsky, executive litigator with the Disability Rights Advocates, calls Garrett "a woman of extraordinary and diverse talents who's made a monumental contribution to the movement by combining a high level of professionalism and knowledge of the law, with a genuine understanding of community politics, a very rare combination."

A lawyer by training, Garrett became a disabilities rights activist by chance.

At first she had misgivings about becoming the center's executive director because it had not been helpful to her when she attended Boalt Hall School of Law for a semester. Unable at the time to dress or feed herself without a steady arrangement of attendants, she was forced to return to law school in Oklahoma.

Nonetheless, she accepted the executive director's job with the goals to improve the services that had failed her 20 years ago, to find work and shelter for the homeless with disabilities, and raise money for the Ed Roberts Campus, a $30 million disability center to be built at the Ashby BART station.

Born with a rare birth defect, Garrett grew up in Oklahoma City, the youngest of four children.

"My parents were strong, and even though experts had told them of my limited possibilities, they refused to accept it," said Garrett. "They were clear that I had intelligence and I could use it."

Her grandfather -- "a garage inventor" -- made her adaptive equipment. He made tiny furniture, a device to balance crayons between her chin and shoulder and taught her how to read and write before she went to kindergarten.

In school, Garrett couldn't participate in games or sports.

"I was always the kid who watched over the jackets, as do many disabled children. This made me more determined to make sure that children with disabilities can play on accessible equipment, play tag or hide-and-go-seek with power chairs, to have what they need to be a kid," she said.

When Garrett was 4, her 16-year-old brother Doug was injured in a motorcycle accident and spent the rest of his life in a vegetative state. "It was terrible for my parents," said Garrett. "My disability was almost minor by comparison."

She went to private school because until the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1975, disabled children were not put into mainstream public schools.

"There was no distinction between someone who merely had physical disabilities and a person with cognitive disabilities," said Garrett.

She went to Scripps College, majored in political science and spent her junior year abroad in Paris, a year that marked the beginning of real independence for her.

As a young disabled person, she was an anomaly in Paris with its cobblestone streets and narrow pavements which made it difficult to navigate in a motorized wheelchair. "In France, as in the rest of Europe, most disabled people don't work. They live on the dole while living in separate communities and are completely segregated from the rest of society," Garrett said.

Garrett still loves France and travels there as much as she can with her husband, Dan Garrett, a computer consultant who does not have a disability. They met in Chicago, were married in 1992 and moved to Berkeley the same year. After having worked as a clerk for a federal judge in Oklahoma for two years, Jan Garrett worked as an INS lawyer in San Francisco while her husband worked at Sybase.

The Garretts live in Berkeley in a two-story house with cats. At home, Jan Garrett scoots around without her wheelchair.

"Jan is unbelievably independent," said Dan Garrett. "People's experience of her is to project what would life be like to lose my limbs and live like her? That's not her paradigm. It has nothing to do with loss. It has to do with civil rights, it has to do with living, loving, and struggling in the face of extraordinary social restrictions."

He hates it when people get sentimental about his wife.

"The worst word in the disability movement is 'inspiring.' Having a defect doesn't change your desire to be alive and that's she's taught me," he said. "It's about being human."
 

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