Thriving on Challenge
Attorney Focuses on Life, Not Disability
by T.T. Nhu, Mercury News, September 22, 2002
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Jan Garrett was on a BART train when a large man loomed over
her motorized wheelchair and demanded loudly: "What happened
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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."