As we continue to celebrate Disability History Month it is also important that we continue to highlight the BIPOC activists who we tend to forget. This week we will be talking about Roland Johnson, one of the most prominent figures in the fight to end of institutions in America.
At age 12 Johnson was sent to Pennhurst. This institution was understaffed while the number of patients were far above the building’s capacity. Individuals with disabilities were abused, neglected, and as in Johnson’s case, victims of racial prejudice. He stayed at this institution for 13 years. It took him a long time to deal with his childhood trauma after he gained his independence.
However, Johnson dedicated the rest of his life working towards a future where no other child would have to endure the pain of being institutionalized like he did. He fought for people with disabilities to be their own self-advocates and to have a say in their treatments.
Johnson was President of the Philadelphia chapter of Speaking for Ourselves, a non-profit that fights for an equitable world. In addition to that he also helped people leave institutions and transition into the outside world. He also founded Self Advocates Become Empowered (SABE), a self-advocacy organization that works to give people with disabilities the same rights as able-bodied people. But most notably, Johnson helped close Pennhurst by speaking out about his childhood and by publishing his book, Lost in a Desert World: The Autobiography of Roland Johnson.