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June 1, 2021
Transcription is provided in order to facilitate communication accessibility and may not be a totally verbatim record of the proceedings.
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>> Welcome to the AccessAbility Works podcast.
>> The podcast about the possibilities of accessibility for people with disabilities. I’m Albert Rizzi.
>> I’m John Hermus.
>> This is AccessAbility Works podcast.
>> Well, I’m really excited about this podcast, Jonathan. We’re going to be speaking with John Kemp. He’s definitely one of my personal — I don’t know how to use the words to describe who John Kemp is in my life. But he’s a colleague. I like to call him friend. I’ll check in with him on that one. And an inspiration to do good things in the community that I find myself living in. And he is the CEO and head of the Viscardi Center based here in Albertson, New York. And it is a school focused on children with varying abilities. And it really does help prepare them for the life ahead as they transition out of high school and into college and life in general. So that’s going to be a great, great interview. I’m looking forward to this so much.
>> You should have a lot of insight because you used to be a teacher and principal, right?
>> Yeah, and that’s one of the things, too, that since losing my eyesight — before losing my eyesight I should say, I had always looked at teaching to the ability of the student rather than bending their ability to my teaching style. And so many kids were labeled as special ed as they were transitioning from preK of all places to kindergarten were anything but. So being able to create these accessible barrier-free opportunities in academia is just one of the starting points of making sure ability is celebrated alongside race, gender, orientation and religion in both our social and corporate cultures. And John Kemp embodies that.
So it’s going to be great.
But what do we have coming up that we want people to pay attention to aside from this fantastic podcast that we are recording.
>> Well, we’re putting out a blog about Sesame Street.
>> Oh, who are the people in your neighborhood? That’s right. We have a blog coming up that’s focused on ability and how Sesame Street has both embraced and embodied inclusion. So its inception — you know, I remember hearing that jingle back in the ’60s, as horrible as it is that I was alive in ’69 when they launched that show. But it really has been a trendsetter. And it sets the tone for authentic inclusion.
They have introduced new characters of varying abilities. And they even just recently announced the appointment of a Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer. And we’re going to be watching that closely to see how the neighborhood develops, so to speak. And then we have some topics that are on the horizon. We keep hearing all about these neural links and all of the exciting things about chips being dropped into my brain so I can be like Geordie. We’re going to be following that and seeing how we can report back on all of that exciting stuff, too. What else is going on in your world, John?
>> I did want to mention that Perseverance did launch a drone-first flight on Mars and modelled it after the first flight on Earth.
>> The Wright Brothers.
>> It was ten seconds.
>> No, it was funny.
>> They modelled the same thing, because the gravity is different on Mars, the atmosphere is different on Mars. So they didn’t know exactly — there’s no evidence of how something would fly on Mars so they did it. I’m nerding out about it a lot.
>> It’s cool they actually followed the same flight pattern for lack of a better term that the Wright Brothers went through from their first flight, their second flight, their third flight, which basically lasted 10 seconds, 50 seconds and something like a minute. And then we have helicopter drones that are out there surveying and navigating Mars.
>> The rover took a selfie so that’s cool.
>> I keep hearing you can buy property up in Mars. If you’re serious about taking that ride up there with Elon Musk, we’re going to have to get you some property.
>> John is going to be a Martian, everybody. Of course breaking news we don’t need to wear masks anymore —
>> Those of us who have our vaccine.
>> Well, I was going to get to that but yes. There’s been recent advancements in the control of the pandemic. Many of us around the country have gotten our vaccinations. You and I both are vaccinated.
>> There are basically 200 million people who have had at least one shot. I believe they are saying 40 to 50% of our population has been vaccinated. And just the other day the President and the CDC, which confused me because we should have known this sooner, said that people who are vaccinated are no longer needing to wear their masks in public, at home, or in small gatherings.
So if you haven’t gotten your vaccination yet, what are you waiting for? Again, that’s some exciting stuff. And I can’t wait to see our country get back to some sense of normalcy and allows us to do what America does best, help people around the world thrive. So hopefully we’ll get some third world nations getting everything they need to stay healthy, safe, and stay wealthy, but that’s going to take a lot more work than just a vaccination.
So let’s get to it. And let’s — what? One more thing.
>> And uh.
>> Don’t forget to look for My Blind Spot on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.
>> Don’t forget to look for us in your favorite podcasts, Spotify, Apple, and of course you can always find the download to our podcasts at MyBlindSpot.org.
>> And don’t forget to tell your friends about the podcast because that’s how podcasts work I guess.
>> If you tell two friends and they tell two friends and we want you to be part of that network.
Well, let’s get to the interview. I would like to introduce to you all John Kemp. John, thanks for joining us.
>> My privilege, Albert.
>> As I said earlier, you are one of my go-to people. You are who I want to be when I grow up. There’s so much you have done for the community. I always call you the godfather of the Disability Community. Our forefather. Our trendsetter. You’ve been at this for a long while. And you’ve done it with so many different Administrations, different politicians, different people of ability.
And I really put a lot of value in all of the things that you say. You have impacted who I am and how I represent the community.
>> Thank you. And it’s way too generous. I’m very humbled and you can obviously see that I’m blushing.
>> Yes, I can see it coming through loud and clear. We have John Hermus here with us as usual.
>> One of the things I would like you to share with Jonathan because the minute I gave him some information, background, about who you are and your physicality, he’s like, oh, I can’t wait to meet John. Do you want to ask what the first question is for us, John Hermus?
>> Well, it’s more about John Kemp than John Hermus. So I would just ask, John, just tell us a little bit about yourself. How you grew up. And what was it like?
>> Sure, I was born in ’49. So I’m 71 years old now. And I feel like I’m 16 or 23 or 40 or something. But I’m not. I don’t feel like what I’ve always thought 71 would be. I’m in great health. And a lot of spirit and all of that. But I had a wonderful start in life. I was born to my mom, who unfortunately died 15 months after I was born. And three months after my little sister was born. She died of ovarian cancer. My older sister is four years older and my mom died December 31, 1950 so literally 15 months later. My dad was left with three of us kids. He was 32 years old. Working for the Federal Government. And he kind of had to get his act together and figure out how he was going to manage this. I was born with my disability. Which is I’m missing limbs off just above the elbows and above one knee and below one knee.
So I had little toes and fingers that were removed so that I could ultimately one day wear prostheses. But he had to make all of these decisions in a very fast time at the age of 32. When I was going past 32 and I was thinking how could I possibly have handled everything that my dad handled at the age of 32 with three kids and just lost the love of his life, it just made me respect him even more.
I grew up in a — actually a very typical Midwestern household. I got artificial arms when I was two. Without elbows. And artificial legs when I was three. I learned to be able to develop the use of elbows when I was about four. So that I could take care of myself at the bathroom. I could feed myself. I could go to school.
And I started in kindergarten in Bismarck, North Dakota. I was born in Iowa and my family essentially settled in Bismarck. And you know, talk about a tough place to be walking around in the slush and snow.
>> The snow.
>> It was tough. It was tough, man, I’ll tell you. It was like, is this a test or something?
>> Oh, my God.
>> My dad would literally — he would drive us one way, sometimes. Otherwise my little sister and I, she’s an Irish twin, so to speak, so she’s 11 months younger than I am. We would walk to school. She was a year behind me in school. We would walk to our Catholic school four blocks away and of course it was uphill both ways, very, very difficult. No, I’m just difficult.
But it was just very normal. My dad had sort of prepped the school that I was coming. They said, sure, we’ll work with John. We’ll see what he can do. And they just included me. In as many things as possible. And when it wasn’t possible, they had a nice way of giving me something else to do.
So I really grew up in an inclusive-feeling community. Everybody knew who I was. Nobody cared whether I had arms or legs or not. About every two years or three years, I would get a new set of arms or legs and it would take about a month to break them in and get back to running and handling my stuff, my food, things like that. So it was great. Grade school in North Dakota. We moved to Frankfort, Kentucky for high school. I had to kind of start over. And I got very involved in the sports teams. I could not play but I was the student manager. So I had a letter jacket with seven letters. I thought I was a real stud.
>> It was merely to try and influence girls. That’s the only reason.
>> Oh, dude.
>> That did not help. I think it was the acne on my face. And whatever else was going on. And my genuine personality that they realized, eh.
>> Next. Exactly.
>> But I learned — I was really motivated by the nuns at this Catholic high school in Frankfort, Kentucky. Frankfort good shepherd high school. And maybe it was because they brought in the big ones. All of the nuns were 6 feet tall. They looked like they could play middle linebacker for a football team. They would roll up newspapers and gently whack you on the back of the head if you weren’t paying attention or weren’t doing what you were doing. And it worked. I would come home and say, Sister So-And-So whacked me for not doing something. He would say, she must have had a good reason.
>> Let me whack you twice so you don’t do it again.
>> Let me pick up where she left off.
>> But I did very well in high school. Well enough to get into Georgetown University. Which was great. I went to Georgetown from Frankfort. And realized that the good Catholic education I got there wasn’t quite up to where the other students were in the Freshman Class. And I started struggling. And then I found out that I could drink beer through a straw at age 18 in Washington D.C. is the drinking age. And I learned how to party.
>> I learned that I could be a real social guy. And I heard this gentleman speak one time about getting a liberal education. Not in the sense that, you know —
>> Exactly, in fine arts. Not in the democratic way. It was more about exposing yourself to all things in the world. I was like okay, that’s me. So I was convincing my dad that my poor grades in college were due to the fact that I was pursuing a liberal education and trying to be well rounded socially so I could go out into the world and be successful. He didn’t buy any of it. I got the scare of my life at Georgetown when I was there in that I got called into the Dean’s Office at 8:00 o’clock, which was like middle of the night for me. And I had to walk over there. Walk into this massive two-story office. With all this wood paneling. As I’m walking to this little cherubic Jesuit priest’s desk and he’s sitting behind it. I could hear the echo off the walls of this wood paneling. It seemed like it was a block. I just kept walking and walking and walking and I sat down. And he turned around and he says, do you like it here at Georgetown?
I said, like it? I love it. This is the best place I’ve ever been.
And he said, well, you weren’t going to finish here if you don’t straighten up with your grades. And he said, I’m done talking to you. You can leave now.
And I put my tail between my legs and crawled out of there.
>> No advice just hey?
>> Hey, you’re about to get kicked, get out of here.
>> Yeah, exactly. I’m surprised he didn’t have a rolled up newspaper, too.
>> I think they carry them in their black outfits. I don’t know.
>> Under their frocks or whatever they call them.
>> Yeah. That got my attention. And I straightened up. And graduated from Georgetown. But had a wonderful time. And met girls. And drank beer. And did well enough in school to go to law school.
And then I was out in the middle of Kansas and it was really so different from Washington D.C. The social life. The students. Everything was just different. Good people. Really good people. And I stayed very close to Washburn University School of Law in Topeka. But it was just so different. I finished in two and a half years. I went to summer school just so I could get out of there.
And went on to work as an attorney for the U.S. EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency in Kansas City where my family was living at the time. My dad. And my dad remarried just a few years before that.
So he had gone 18 to 20 years without remarrying because he didn’t want to introduce another family into our home. And so it was a great sacrifice to him. But he was just an incredible, incredible guy. Incredible guy.
So that was — that’s sort of my journey up to that point. I’ll stop and see if you have any questions. I don’t know if I can tell you everything. But I’ll —
>> I want to know where the bones are buried in Georgetown.
>> Where were you born in Iowa.
>> I was born in Waterloo, Iowa.
>> Where is that in relation to Emmetsburg? If you know that at all. Because we have staff that live in Emmetsburg and I went there to visit them once and airports were at least two and a half to three and a half hours from his house.
>> Well, that’s about how far it is to DesMoines. It’s in the northeast corner of Iowa. It’s so cold there, it’s ridiculous. You know, I thought North Dakota was cold. It seems like it’s colder there. And in Chicago. Than North Dakota. But maybe I just numbed up in North Dakota.
>> We live in the northeast. And I always thought we had cold.
>> We live on an island in the Atlantic Ocean.
>> It’s different.
>> And John I think it’s colder in Iowa than it is in Long Island.
>> Because we have the Gulf Stream coming up and warming us up.
>> That’s right.
>> And another thing you have in common with my John, John went to Catholic school but I don’t think they used newspapers at his school.
>> They weren’t allowed to hit us when we got there.
>> I think that’s wrong. We need to beat them and beat them regularly.
Let me ask you this, John, now that you’re head of the Viscardi Center in Albertson where you empower youth of ability to take their rightful place in society and leverage their abilities rather than being judged for what they can’t do, the academic enrichment that you’re giving to children today, how much of that focus stems from what sounds to be a quote-unqoute normal childhood you had in school? Because I think people with varying abilities, whether — depending on where they are on the spectrum of sensory loss, mobility, physical impairments, what have you, and John also has a print disability. He’s dyslexic. The manner with which academia and educators approach ability varies based upon perception of physicality I think. And a little bit of fear. Fear factor of I’m going to break them. Or I might catch what they have.
How have you seen a difference between the academic career you had as a child in early childhood education to the head of a school today?
>> Well, that’s a fine question. I must say that the tone and the temperament of the teaching model here was very compatible and is very compatible with my youth and the way I was taught. And it’s high expectations. And never complete satisfaction with where you are.
And it’s kind of like, how you are with your family or your parents? Like no matter how old you’ll get, you’re still wondering, will my mom or dad approve of this? Am I making them happy or proud? Am I doing right? It’s kind of tough love. But not in a real physical way. It’s just really high expectations. And we really push them. This is one of the blessings I think of Viscardi is like Dr. Viscardi was like this. I have tried to carry it on. There have been two CEOs in between. And we all agree that Dr. Viscardi got it right the first time. And that we are just continuing his legacy. And his philosophy of education. But we look at the whole family. And we look at the whole student and what that student is going through.
What are the circumstances surrounding that child? Does the person’s disability have anything to do with his or her ability to learn? What are their economic insecurities, if there are any? More than half of our students are on free or reduced lunches.
>> Lunch, yeah.
>> Breakfast and lunch now.
>> So a lot of kids are poor. But we do not distinguish between how wealthy or how poor kids are. And we don’t make any references to that. But we do check in with the parents just to see if they need anything. And to make sure there aren’t any food insecurities, especially in this pandemic period. This has been very difficult.
But the philosophies are very much the same. In the way we educate. And there are a lot of physical education courses, a lot of afterschool programs that we have. There’s computer labs. We’ve got our coding classes. We’ve got an independent living home on campus.
>> Oh, I didn’t know that.
>> Yeah, so that juniors and seniors can go over to this independent living home and spend it used to be just Friday nights and they would go out and shop and get their food and bring it back and make it and decide what they are going to watch on TV. They are usually almost a one-to-one ratio of support attendants that are able to assist them.
And the profile — I should back up just a second and say the profile of our student at Henry Viscardi is a very severely disabled medically fragile student who really requires medical supports, technological supports, and human supports to be able to live independently. As independently as possible. So we provide those — all of those things for them. And then leave a lot of decisions making in their hands. They can decide how they want to live. And what they want to watch on TV. What are they going to study first. And a system, if they need it.
They are learning to be empowered in the way that they are going to need to be empowered as they get out into the community and hire personal care attendants and other people that are going to support them. They have to be able to manage other people and do it respectfully and authoritatively.
But anyway, the independent living house is great because it gives them a chance to spend — now we have added a Thursday night and a — and a Friday night. So now they can come on over — buzz on over in their chairs. The profile is a wheelchair user. Not verbal. So communication, physical access, all of those things are very critical. So we are a barrier-free campus. And we use a lot of technology to allow them to — the home has become a smart home. We’re just refinishing it. It’s got everything that they will have on their phones and in the house they will be able to answer the door. Open the door. Answer the phone. Turn on the TVs. Close the binds. Open the windows. Call for help. Anything like that that they need.
So it’s going to be by voice or by augmentative voice. So it’s great. So it’s just a smart home.
>> Two important things that I want to know about your school. Where do you keep the newspaper? Is it a Times, a Newsday or Daily News? And where is the beer with the straw in the can?
>> Oh, it’s don’t ask, don’t tell. I understand.
>> That’s one of the things, too, that I noticed about the school, the Henry Viscardi Center. I’ve been there with you many times. Is that — and this is something that I did. I may have shared with you before that I ran a school in the South Bronx. That’s where I lost my eyesight. Is I did look at things holistically. I looked at the families. Not just the students. And one year we did this fundraising event for the holidays. Usually in some schools we do a fundraiser where we get one gift for a child and that gift is usually exorbitant because most people think giving more money on a big gift is going to make them feel better about themselves that one day that that child opens that gift. Versus a year-round attention to giving and acceptance. But we did a project with Robin Hood Foundation. Where we took accounting of all of the members in the household. And as you said, they are economically challenged very often. At least in the areas that I taught.
And they sometimes had eight people, nine people, living in a two-bedroom apartment and we gave gifts to the entire family and made sure it was Christmas for everybody and we started making sure we looked at meals. And the children — I gave children complete control over choices in food. Because at that time we were just looking at how bad sodas are for your body and we had this whole wall of the human body, the skeletal structures, the organs. What the food did for —
>> All of the fun stuff.
>> All of the good stuff and bad stuff. Reorganized all of our meal plans to go with Sysco foods. That way we had every six weeks fresh meals not just the crap they were being fed before. And giving them a sense of appreciation and independence. And it wasn’t too long ago — I don’t know how you as an evangelist, for lack of a better term. That’s the new word they throw around at Microsoft and a few other places. I’m an evangelist for inclusion.
Children as fragile as the population at Viscardi were often institutionalized and not even considered viable in our society while you were growing up.
>> Exactly right. And I think we have made a lot of progress in society in general. In how we look at kids. Especially kids with, you know, either physical, emotional, intellectual disabilities. Behavioral problems. Things like that.
But we still have a long, long way to go. And even our school gets challenged once in a while by the disability opinionators that say, you have a segregated school. And I’ll just say, these are all kids with disabilities that are in our school. And we have said historically Black colleges and universities. And that’s usually my first response.
The second response is, is it acceptable to you because it isn’t to me to just let a kid with very severe disabilities whose medically fragile languish in the back of a public school classroom with no one talking to him or her. And no attention to detail about what that child wants or needs to be able to be engaged in the process of learning and social and emotional learning.
Or do you want the child to thrive? So where is the proper placement?
Are they meeting the minimum standards of Least Restrictive Environment? And FAPE? Free Appropriate Public Education. Or can we go above that low bar and allow the parents choice as to where they think their child is going to thrive. And that’s at Viscardi. And many parents choose Viscardi based on word of mouth, peer-to-peer. We don’t have a waiting list but we’re absolutely at the top of our —
>> Well, not physical capacity. We could actually take more. But if we get asked by five to ten more kids whose IEPs require a lot of additional faculty or say related to service staff which are therapists and nurses and all of that, we are prevented by the State of New York from exceeding a cap of 13.272 million is what we get from the state. And I will be going to Albany and raising holy hell to say, how can you force us to deny access to this child who needs a Free Appropriate Public Education? And can thrive.
So we’re right at that precipice of a danger zone in that we’re going to need the cap lifted pretty soon. Parents are not satisfied with their kids getting the appropriate attention and meaningful education in a public school setting. Many kids with disabilities do go to public schools in New York. And they do fine. In New York City area and Long Island. They do fine. I’m not taking anything away from them.
But for the complex kid with lots of different kinds of disabilities and conditions, there’s rarely more than a school nurse for all of the kids in the school there. We have a doctor one day a week. Four full-time nurses. And 30 PT, OT and speech pathologists on staff to serve 175 students. So this is the place they would come to get medically supported and thrive academically.
So I would rather opt for like historically Black college or university, Viscardi School, or an all girls school or all boys school because it’s a matter of choice on the part of the parent where they want their kid to go.
>> I do believe in instances a homogeneous setting is just as valuable as a heterogeneous setting. And in this instance as you said before, all too often — and John can speak to this about how he felt with some of the resource rooms and how he was treated. But I couldn’t help but think about thriving versus surviving.
>> So you put this child into a classroom. They are somewhere in the mix. No one is really paying attention to them. And they graduate with some paper. I’ve looked at this before. Some of them aren’t even high school diplomas per se. It’s not that they couldn’t do it. It’s that we as a society aren’t looking to teach to the ability anymore. The educators want the ability to bend to the teaching style. And that’s one of the things that I really appreciate about the Henry Viscardi Center is we take the student at their ability and we teach to the ability. And you rise the bar to become independent. And that’s the thing that — I don’t know, since losing my eyesight and becoming a member of this community, the one thing that — I don’t know.
The one thing that I covet. And I know that’s not the right word with you Catholic boys here. But is my independence. You know, John and I get into it all the time. Like why aren’t you asking me to cut the cucumbers? Because I have a Cuisinart. I can do it. It’s not as fast. But there’s that thing about the five-year-old in me, I do. Me do. I do it myself. I’m a big boy.
And that’s again one thing that you have taught me and it’s something too from the LGBT community, Nothing About Us Without Us.
>> And I think if institutions in our nation, throughout our history, were truly inclusive, we would not need Black colleges. We would not need a Henry Viscardi Center. Because we would be a society that was rooted in authentic inclusion that celebrates ability alongside race, gender, orientation and religion in our social and corporate cultures.
And we do have a long way to go. Inspite of all of the fantastic things that have been happening with regard to acceptance of African Americans. Women. LGBT. And now people with disabilities.
>> I’m totally with you. Do I hope some day that we don’t need a Henry Viscardi School? Absolutely. But until then, until everybody is on an equal level, for the supports and services they need to be able to thrive and grow — because people learn uniquely and differently. They develop uniquely and differently. And they need a lot of supports around them.
And many times schools just aren’t able to meet all of the diverse needs that people have. Whatever they are.
>> So until that time comes, there is still a need for a Henry Viscardi School.
>> And we will do our best. The kids know what the world is like. They go out into the shopping malls. And to the extent they can, hang out in their communities. And they know the difference between an inclusive environment and a school like ours. And they know that what we’re doing is preparing them to go to a college somewhere. Where there will be non-disabled kids. They just are going to have to learn that those colleges and then the next step would be hopefully the workplace don’t have as many supports and services as Viscardi has. And they are going to have to figure out slowly but surely how they transition from one with the supports and services they can gather up. And then again to the employer community and living on their own, how are they going to patch it together. What services they need.
Thank God there are grocery stores that will deliver now groceries to your door and accessible transportation is more common and communications technologies have advanced so quickly. So I think things are all going in the right direction. But we are not there yet.
>> And that’s one of the things, too, that Senator Tom Harkin and Congressman Tony Coelosi.
>> Coelho. I can never remember that name. I feel so terrible about that. Thank you.
>> You’re welcome.
>> And I know you were there for that. So they were disappointed in how in retrospect and reflection there hasn’t been such advancement in the employment arena. And that’s one of the things when I lost my eyesight I was offered volunteer positions. I have two Master’s Degrees from St. John’s University where I got a really good look at what it means to be an educator. And outside of parenting it’s the most — I don’t know. I took it very seriously.
Every child that I taught, I looked at as having untapped potential. Regardless of how much teachers told me, oh, that kid is going to be special ed. Don’t waste your time on them. Just push them through kindergarten.
None of my students that I know of today who were labeled as special needs ever were. And have gone to college. Some of them are still, you know, pursuing careers and everything.
And that’s one of the things that I think we, as a society, we’re fearful of our loved one getting hurt, if they have a disability. And then we’re guilty. Because we couldn’t protect them from it. And our society has manifested itself for millennia on looking past or not seeing the ability in each of us. And we’re relegated to nothingness.
And it’s time that we really looked at ability for its face value. Because you take a look at some of the movers and shakers throughout history. People like Stephen Hawking. Sir Richard Branson. We look at people to fit some sort of norm.
And growing up, I never met a blind person before. I am the first blind person I ever met. However, I had my cousin, John will a gross at that, he’s not a Jonathan, you’re a Jonathan. John contracted measles. He back then was mentally retarded. He’s a little older than me. But he’s been independent. And PJ next door. And he had the same situation. And then Ellen. I always grew up around people who had a disability. And we never looked at them as different. They were part of the family. They were friends in the neighborhood. We would go and play with them to the best of their ability.
But we never saw them in school. We never saw them out in public in a school setting or on a field trip.
And I think for one reason or another, having these blended academic experiences would lend themselves to the expectation of seeing a John or a PJ or a John Kemp in school. Then we would see them in the workforce. And I think that’s the thing we’re having a problem here making that leap of faith or that transition into gainful employment is — and again, the silver lining and we’ll get to that, the pandemic.
The concept of remote work-from-home opportunities for the Disability Community was squashed. Oh, we don’t have that kind of environment at you know AT & T or JPMorgan Chase.
But now that everybody is working from home, 3% of the workforce used to do that. And up to 50% of the American careers in this country could be done from home. And I think there’s a silver lining here for our community of people. Where transportation and moving from Point A to Point B is a major barrier outside of understanding and digital equity. To being gainfully employed. And we have the opportunity for the first time I think to intentionally move the needle in a direction where people with a disability aren’t going to be tax dependents but will be through the support you have given them and the guidance that they get from places like the Henry Viscardi Center to be independent taxpayers who can earn an income, feel good about what they do, and thrive.
>> You are so right. Instead of going to work. Work comes to us. And we can work from home and this whole area has proven that. And so that’s been one of the big barriers for a lot of people is transportation. How do I get to work? And it’s hard enough in the New York metropolitan area to get from one place to another and then in DC it was always the elevators of the Metro. And just —
>> What elevators?
>> Yeah, the one elevator for each landing and you had to go up and down.
>> Fourteen levels.
>> Yeah, it was just ridiculous.
>> Let me ask you is this, John, I remember the first time when I was introduced to you back in 2011 and you started the Viscardi Center in 2011.
>> When I learned, I was like this is going to be crazy. Do you drive?
>> So I don’t and I hate that. I hate that I can’t. And out here on the island, it goes back to the transportation, the only options I have are taxies and that becomes cost prohibitive because we don’t really have an adequate bus system like we do in New York City or in some metropolises, subways and trains. It’s really prohibitive. And it’s funny because not just people with disabilities. But people of ability can’t get to work if they don’t have cars and everything. So transporting from Point A to Point B during the pandemic for work purposes has been eliminated. And it’s an interesting — I don’t know, I just hope somewhere along the way we can really harness this as an opportunity and not look at it as a detriment.
>> I think it’s going to go down as a transformational year for a lot of reasons. But the way we work is definitely going to be one of the silver linings, as you pointed out.
I would like to go back to something you said earlier, if you don’t mind.
>> And just comment on it. Because it really strikes a chord with me and I think it really has load to do with the way work is performed. And I think we’re in this new era of a changing nature of work. And here is what I envision, over the next 10 to 15 years, as we have all become personally branded, we all have our own personal brands now. We have our own identities. You know, we’ve got these retail investors. We’ve got people doing things on their own. And yet they find community online primarily because of the gift of technology. In that sense.
So work is going to become something that is packaged and upped by us, not just people with disabilities, but by individuals. And what you’re really good at you will contract with a company to deliver.
>> And everyone will be basically independent contractors of sorts. There will have to be some transformational stuff going on in the payrolls and employment taxes and all of those kinds of things. But that’s all right. The bigger point here is I might be good at three things. Really, really great at three things. And I’m going to sell them to 40 companies. I’m going to sell those skills. And I’m going to fill up my 40 to 60 hour to 80-hour weeks performing those tasks. And maybe moving up and doing higher level in that vertical. And it will be done as an independent contractor.
There will still be needs for companies to take that information from a variety of independent contractors and assemble it into a product or service that a company offers to the public.
But work is going to be performed differently. Even if it’s from home. What time is it performed? What is the time, cost, quality, quantity measurements that you impose upon the performance of work? I see us becoming more independent contractors. And companies hiring us, not just us, people with disabilities, but everyone. And getting the best of what we have to offer. And then us learning how to market the best of what we have to offer to companies and nonprofits and do this in that way.
So geography will become less important. How close am I to the office? How often do I have to go into the office? Maybe never. So I think it bodes well for the graduates of our school who probably would have a really hard time physically getting from home to a place. And they will be able to use their gig economy minds. And capabilities. To deliver a service to a company in that way. And get paid properly for it.
So I see work changing dramatically in that sense.
>> I like that idea. It sounds like a bright outlook for the future.
>> It really is. And to John’s point, John, we have a mutual colleague, friend, member of the community who works at JPMorgan Chase. Jim Sinocchi. And Jim would tell me how he has to travel — Jim happens to have a really bad spinal cord injury, 45, 50 years ago. I forget how long ago. And is basically paralyzed from the neck down. And in a wheelchair, mechanical wheelchair or automated wheelchair. And has to travel with two assistants every time. Personal care assistants. And that’s not easy to manage. So this whole concept of being able to bring work into the home from an economic perspective for our nation. We decrease the demand on public assistance programs. And disability checks. Down an ailing system that’s on hospice already.
And we give people an opportunity to work from home. And it decreases the demand on those programs that are really there for people who needed them but maybe not have wanted them. I didn’t want to be on disability. I was given no choice. I was told to volunteer in an organization with all of my business acumen and accomplishments. To then hopefully be hired at a $10 an hour job two years down the road.
>> Now, it’s just unfortunate. And I think that’s one of the things that we are very much in alignment on is creating opportunities for self-advancement. And the things that they learn under your guidance at the Henry Viscardi Center and have been learning for decades. Is how to be independent. As independent as they can be. And I love the idea of the students having a weekend away. So they can just be kids. And be young adults who are inquisitive and looking for new things.
>> Yeah. If somebody snuck some beer into the independent living house, I would just look the other way.
>> See, now I would — I would have assumed it was pop they were opening up or soda.
>> But you know, like what time do you go to bed? You know, self-management sort of things. Emotional intelligence. We teach emotional intelligence to our students.
>> We talk about self-regulating. We talk about, how talking too much or are you talking too little? Are you sucking up all the air into the room every time you go into a room? Are you being fair to everyone else? How would you like to be talked to in a demeaning way? You wouldn’t. You won’t do that.
So we teach emotional intelligence as part of our social-emotional learning system here. And that’s sort of the wrap-around. The glue that’s way beyond the education that we’re teaching them. They — just the pure hard education. But it’s like you have to go out into this world and be able to get along with a lot of different characters. A lot of different weird people. Everyone else is weird and I’m perfect. You know, that kind of thing.
>> Exactly, everyone else is weird. I’m perfect.
>> You know you’re going out there and will bump into a bunch of different characters. And you have to learn how to slip and slide and move and get what you need without sacrificing your identity or your respect for yourself or anything like that. And they have to feel that they are getting what they want and need from you.
It’s really teaching them all of those things. So if a kid wants to be a kid, we have crushes. We have romances. There are this, there are that. It’s just we’ve got it all in our little Viscardi city here, little Viscardi town. It’s good for them to see all aspects of life, even if it’s on a microcosm of 600, 700 people, who are adults working here. Students going to school here. Program participants who are high school aged up to 65 learning transition plans. All the way up to vocational training and placement into jobs. And, gosh, we have some day hab programs for people who may never be able to work. But deserve a chance to participate in the community and be a part of it.
We give them the big exposure. And then when they leave us and go out into the community all we can say is, please, please, please, I hope other people are as enlightened. And we are always learning, by the way, we don’t know it all by any means. But we are constantly learning to do better. And that’s what we expect society to do.
But the disparity in employment, just to hit the nail on the head that you raised earlier, is awful.
>> And what Tony Coelho talks about is right. Judy Heumann. All of us. We’re just aghast at the fact that it’s been 31 years almost since the passage of the ADA. Almost 50 years since the passage of the Rehab Act of 1973.
>> And give me a break. We made a 1% gain in employment.
>> I’m sorry; it’s a bone of contention for me. There’s no reason why I should have, you should have — we’ve got brains. We’ve got ability. To be forced into a situation that wasn’t comfortable for us. And I don’t want that — one of the things that drives me and is my — this has been a core issue for me. I think I shared that with you. Every since I lost my eyesight, my higher power, whether it’s the fallen angel or the No. 1 angel, I don’t give a darn whether it’s the forces of nature, the universe, whatever it is, I’ve been called to draw attention to the inequities. Because we still don’t have an accurate understanding or a greed calculation to determine who is quote-unqoute unemployed versus not looking.
If I don’t have a job, I’m unemployed. I can’t look for a job because I don’t have the computers. I mean that’s one of the things the Commission for the Blind here in New York really pissed me off when I was told, you can’t get a computer through the Commission for the Blind unless you have a job. You can’t get a job without a resume. You can’t make a resume without a computer.
But you can’t get a computer without a job. What?
>> What a rat race circular dance that is.
>> Same thing with work experience.
>> How do you get work experience without getting a job? You need experience to get a job.
>> And that’s what we really look for. We always talk at My Blind Spot about digital equity. And that’s the terminology that was introduced to me at one of the events at the Viscardi Center. Who was the academic, the professor from Cornell?
>> Dr. Susanne Bruyere.
>> Yes, yes.
>> She’s awesome.
>> No, dude, she said that to me. And I’m like equity. Equality hasn’t worked for anybody. You think about how we struggle. But equity is that terminology that the financial industry understand. C-Suite understand. And until we have digitally equitable technologies that are maximized to the fullest potential that corporations have invested in to begin with, we are really never going to be able to move past this less than and this marginalization and disenfranchised community of people.
And we’re saying 70 to 75% of people are unemployed or underemployed. I always have to throw in the underemployed because so many people in the Disability Community say, no, no, they are just not looking for work. Well, as a blind person, I can’t look for work because most of the job boards aren’t easy to use.
>> And there’s a difference between usability and accessibility, John. We’ve had this conversation before. I’ve moved away from using the word accessibility because it’s an antiquated term. For some reason — a reason people are always believing in Corporate America — that they are held to 508 of the Rehab Act. And that’s for only Federal entities, that’s for Federal agencies. We don’t have a similar section or act outside of the ADA which is still being argued about whether or not the internet is a public forum or not.
>> Yes, you’re absolutely right.
>> We can go on ad nauseam about that for sure. I don’t want to take up that time because that can be another reason for you to come back and talk to us which I would love.
>> I would be glad to. But yes, I think that deserves a good airing.
>> Right. What I want to figure out — something, too. Things that you went off. And my hat is off to your dad. And my hat off to the Adams. Kirk Adams as you know was raised by parents who didn’t coddle him. He was told, get out there and do it. And again, the two of you exemplify Nothing About Us Without Us. We are setting examples for the community of people that we are not only members of but we’re presidents of. It makes a difference, it really, really does when you are.
>> It does.
>> You guys are doing such fantastic work that really opens up opportunities for people of all abilities.
>> Thank you.
>> We knew where you started. We knew you got to Georgetown. What happened after Georgetown? I know you went out to get your law degree in Kansas.
>> I did.
>> There’s so much that you’ve done. Talk about the things you’ve done with the various Administrations. Let’s talk about the hands-on nothing about us actions you took to get the community of people where they are today.
>> You know, the parallel is that I graduated from law school within three months of the passage of the Rehab Act of 1973. And my whole professional career has paralleled the development of civil rights for people with disabilities.
So I have ridden this train all the way through and watched it and lived it first person. And seen the struggle and the efforts and the successes. Not that many. But some well-intentioned people. I’m still amazed that we’re still talking about the bolt-on solutions to getting people with disabilities included in the workplace. And I went to work right out of law school for the U.S. EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency. Gave me my little bit of flavor. Gave me about four to five years of experience as a Government lawyer. And doing environmental law work. Which was really interesting. But at the same time I was on the Board of Directors of the national Easterseals society in Chicago.
And I will now reference the fact that in — when I was ten years old, I was the national Easterseals poster child.
>> Shut up.
>> And very proud of it.
>> I got the good look. I could look people in the eye. I could lay the guilt on anybody. I could do the disabled kid pity party.
>> But you know, we have obviously moved away from that. But I did that.
>> And you know, that’s an amalgam of all of our different experiences. And I’m really glad that I actually did that. Because when somebody gave me the microphone and I was ten years old, which now most representatives like that aren’t that old and there aren’t that many poster children anymore anyway. But I knew that I had to say something smart or meaningful or powerful or impactful.
>> And I got a little gig going. So I would just say certain things that I knew I needed to say that made me feel that I was being responsible for not just myself but for the whole Disability Community. So I did that as I was working as an environmental lawyer.
Then I went to work for national Easterseals in Chicago for a year. And went back to Kansas City where I was working for EPA. And started my own law firm and consulting business at age 27, 28. Working with corporations on how to implement the Rehab Act.
And Sections 503 and 504, which were focused on Federal contractors. And recipients of Federal financial assistance. And that was the extent of the reach of the Federal law. And with regard to disability rights.
So until 1990 and the ADA was passed and jurisdiction went to 15 or more employees of any company doing business in interstate commerce.
>> So I went —
>> That’s Section 503 of the Rehab Act.
>> 503 is Federal customer residents and it still exists today. It was stricter a higher bar than just pure non-discrimination 504 and ADA. And so there are affirmative duties. And so I realized like I’m the guy that can teach companies how to do this.
And I can give them what full compliance means. And they can decide how far they want to go with full compliance, if they really want to take it all the way up.
So I felt like I was fulfilling my advocacy work on behalf of people with disabilities by getting hired by corporations to go and do training. I helped them write affirmative action plans. Lay out an agenda. Come back. Do training for them.
I did that for seven, eight years. And then was hired to work back to Easterseals in Chicago at their headquarters. Where I ran the Human Resources Department. I ran affiliate relations and Human Resources together. Then I became the Chief Development Officer in an eight-year period of time. And by 1990, I had learned a lot about managing a nonprofit. A national nonprofit. And put on telethons all of that kind of thing. Run direct mail programs. And major gift programs and all of that. I got recruited to be the CEO of the United Cerebral Palsy Association’s national organization. I moved to Washington from Chicago in 1990.
And I did that for five years. Got recruited to be the CEO of Very Special Arts. And got into the arts and culture and disability field. And learned a lot. And by 2000, I was joining a law firm in Washington D.C. The Pyles law firm. Now called the Powers firm.
And I ended up from my position as a partner a year later, they voted me in as a partner. In 2001. I was able to continue working with nonprofits and doing a lot of disability policy work primarily on employment and technology. IBM was a consulting client of mine. Not a law client. But a consulting client. But I was also CEO of five different organizations as part of my law practice and they were all disability space areas. So I continued my disability involvement. But by management and leadership stuff in the nonprofit world.
So that’s what led me up to getting recruited to come to Viscardi in 2011. And I left my wonderful law practice. Because I felt that I was too far away from human beings, being the CEO on a part-time basis for a bunch of organizations that were all very good. And you know, one of them was — it’s turned out to be the Disability:IN it was USBLN back then.
>> I was the first CEO of USBLN and Jill was my No. 2. And Jill is now the CEO of Disability:IN and doing a great job. I’m really proud of what I’ve done. But I’m not done yet. And I think there’s a lot to do. And one of the things that I’m very proud of that we have started here at Viscardi is to address the needs of entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship for people with disabilities used to be the default. Like I can’t get a job. So I’m going to start repairing hearing aids and wheelchairs in my garage. I’m being facetious. But it was really a default position. I’ve got to do something with my life. And I’m going to do this.
And today you are a prime example. You have choices. And you chose to start your business. Look at how successful you are.
And this is what we want to bring to a lot of other people with disabilities who have this I-want-to-do-this idea. So we start them in the ideation stage. And we take them through to — for a year they are in a cohort. It started with 15. We ended up with I think 11 or 12. It runs almost the entire year of 2000 was our first cohort. This was privately funded. A money — we went out and got a good chunk of money from a wonderful family to be able to do this.
And one of the graduates of our program is a woman named Alex. Who has autism. And started a school for kids with autism K through 6th Grade in Massachusetts. And decided that she wanted to franchise it. Into Florida. And she became part of our cohort.
And she was already having an operating business but didn’t know how to take it to the next level. And she has — you know, we provide things like what kind of corporation are you going to set up? Or are you even going to incorporate? Are you going to be a sole proprietor or a B Corp? A this or that, what kind of financing setup am I going to have? How am I going to keep my business money separate from my personal money? How am I going to pay myself? When do I pay myself? Can I pay myself? We provide all of this plus how to manage your time and your expertise. So we have gone through one whole year. We’ve got another one starting in about a month or two. Another cohort. And we’re now looking at how we’re going to sustain our own national center on disability entrepreneurship.
>> I love it.
>> So it’s really exciting.
>> God, I love you. And that’s one of the things, too that I just — uh, choices. That’s one of the things I realized immediately upon walking through the disability entrance. My choices were lost. They were disabled to me. They took them all away from me. And that’s some of the things that I want to do. I want to make sure that whoever comes behind me, whether it’s our youth who are born into the community. Or elders like me have who acquired something along the way. I want there to be choices. I choose to sit home because I don’t want to walk out and do things at the moment. Or I choose to go to work. Choice is a very important aspect of life that got stolen from me.
>> You’re right. You are so right, Albert. That’s exactly what we try to do here is use the education vehicle but employment is also a part of it. But it’s about your life. What choices do you have in your life? People make good and bad decisions every day. There are a lot of non-disabled people laying on a couch when they could be working. Give me a break. If that’s the result of discrimination towards people with disabilities, shame on society.
>> For sure.
>> It’s not a choice by people with disabilities. But anyway.
>> I just wanted to — one last question. What do you think is the most significant advancement that the Disability Community has seen? And where do you think that we can improve more?
>> That’s a heavy question.
>> That’s a challenging question.
>> For 11 minutes.
>> Yeah, exactly.
>> I would say the greatest advancement was probably the passage of the ADA and the greatest weakness is we have not enforced it. ADA was quite comprehensive. There were very few tradeoffs. There were some to get it passed. But getting it passed was a huge step forward. But we still have only gone up 1% in disability employment. Albert, you referenced earlier this measurement of employment. I’ve got to say that the — I don’t like using unemployment rate. And I know you didn’t. I think you’re more focused on labor force participation rate. And it should include entrepreneurs. But it doesn’t.
So if you use the unemployment rate, that means you’ve been out of the workforce for 11 months. And there’s an assumption that you don’t want to work. So you fall off the measurement. And you’re not counted in the 8.2 or 9.3%. It’s kind of what became palatable to the public to hear from Government as to what the unemployment rate is for all people. Labor force participation is a much better measurement. Because it says two years or three years later, I’m still looking for a job as a person with a disability and can’t find one and I get counted as I can’t find a job and I’m not happy. I’m unemployed. So I’m not in the labor force. And I’m not counted as a participant in that. So I’m on the other side of it.
So I think labor force participation is a much better measurement of our immersion into or our acceptance into the workforce. And I would go with that one.
>> I’m going to use labor force participation just like digital equity from now on.
>> That’s great.
>> That does address it really clearly because I don’t want to spend time arguing how we calculate or calibrate what is or is not an employment rate. Labor force participation.
>> That’s it.
>> You get those numbers from the Department of Labor.
>> I’m getting from you. I’m not going to call them.
>> So John, with the last few moments we have because you’re a man in high demand and we value your time and appreciate you being here with us.
>> I love being with you guys.
>> Oh my God, it’s such a pleasure being in your presence and even though you’re not in the room, what’s on the horizon for you personally? 71. I can’t believe you’re 71. You never feel like — you’re just a few years older than me. You feel like 60. I’m telling you that right now.
>> I think I’m 40. Sometimes 12. Really it’s like just a number.
>> Yeah. No. It’s a presence. It’s an energy that you have. It’s just all encompassing and I think you have another 30, 40 years doing the same kind of thing you’re doing.
>> I would love it. I’m healthy and my wife keeps me healthy and happy and I think part of it is just having a good well-rounded life. So that’s all good.
What’s the future? I’m going to stay here for a few more years, as far as I know. Everything is going great at Viscardi. I’ll some day groom a successor. But I will never stop working in the disability space whatsoever. Is public service something I would do? Yes, I would consider it. You know, I’m going to keep speaking, writing, maybe get a book out. Do some things like that.
And just drive change. We’re far from parity.
>> And I can’t handle that.
>> Many shoulders make light work. Order me to be your minion and I will go forth and fight the good fight.
>> We will do it together, Albert.
>> Oh my God brother.
>> We definitely have to have you back on the show because I feel like I hardly know you but I feel like we just scratched the surface without you.
>> It would be an honor to come back.
>> John, thank you so much. Go get that money for the kids. Especially in this time. During the pandemic. The one group of individuals who are actually put at a disadvantage. And we have enough dissing in our lives we don’t need to be dislabeled and disabled from accessing academic enrichment. So go get the funds. Because without people like you, without the Henry Viscardi Center, I would be so worried about where our youth of ability would be today.
So thank you so much.
>> Thank you; thank you, Albert.
>> We wish you all the best, brother and I’ll see you soon yes.
>> Yes, we will be together soon I hope.
>> All right man.
>> Be safe and be healthy.
>> That was John Kemp, President and CEO of the Viscardi Center. And the accomplishments he’s made have been remarkable.
That he was a poster child is beyond real. I always talk about establishing a new poster child for ability where it’s none of that empathetic, sympathetic, you know, motivational, give us money poster kid. I can’t believe he was that poster child that I’m trying to usurp and replace.
>> But what a remarkable life. What a remarkable set of accomplishments. What a remarkable human being.
>> Human story. How his father, inspite of all of the setbacks and things they had to deal with with the passing of his mom, still had the mindset to focus in on his son’s ability rather than make excuses for the perceived disability. Just remarkable. Fantastic.
>> As we leave today, I want to remind everyone that we have an email that they can reach out to us. It’s podcast@MyBlindSpot.org. So if you have anything you want to tell us or questions or anything, send it there. Feel free to visit our website. You can actually find the podcast on our website. We post it there MyBlindSpot.org/accessibilityworks.
>> And don’t forget to look for us at your favorite podcast on Spotify, Apple. And as we have said before, please tell your friends and family. Because the more listeners we have, the better off we will be at making accessibility work for people with disabilities. And don’t forget to listen to our next podcast. It’s going to be highlighting Kristin Smedley, who is a mother who had been I guess driven for lack of a better term to fight for authentic inclusion of her children. Her two boys. Who happen to have a visual impairment. And really made some great inroads into understanding what they needed to thrive. And in doing that, they taught her how to advocate on behalf of the entire visually impaired and Blind Community.
>> Kristin is also the co-founder of Brilliantly Resilient. And she has a book called “Thriving Blind: Stories of Real People Succeeding Without Sight.”
>> Yes, just vision. This has been AccessAbility Works podcast. The podcast about the possibilities that accessibility means for people with disabilities.
I’m Albert Rizzi.
>> I’m John Hermus.
>> And thank you for joining us today.
>> Par favor.
>> Hang on.
>> I will stop with that.
>> Hang on.
>> Wait, there’s a car.
>> Car, car, c-a-r, stick it in a jelly jar. Goodbye.
[END OF TRANSCRIPT]
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