John D. Kemp on disability rights and the enduring power of mentors

John D. Kemp on disability rights and the enduring power of mentors

When we create our stories each week, one of the most agonizing decisions is what to call people. How do you distill a life—in the case of our storytellers, an otherworldly life—into the three or four words of a title scroll?

Listen to the podcast:


“You can’t be what you can’t see” wrote humanitarian activist Marian Wright Edelman. Over the arc of his lifetime, this week’s 3-Minute Storyteller, John D. Kemp, has worked tirelessly to ensure that those with disabilities never lack for role models who can inspire them to live full, meaningful lives.

Born without arms and legs in the Midwest in the 1940s, John lost his mom to ovarian cancer when he was a toddler. He and his two sisters were raised by a single father, who John credits with cultivating his imagination. “I’d ride in the car with my Dad as a boy, and he’d say things like ‘when you get out of college,’ it was never ‘if.’ Always ‘when.’ Most kids, I’ve found, try to live up to the expectations of their parents,” John shared during our recent visit to The Viscardi Center and Henry Viscardi School, where he is President and CEO. “My Dad painted a picture for me to live up to that was very important.”

As an advocate, attorney, legislator, and trailblazer, John wears many hats.  But his greatest legacy is to offer new generations the most expansive possibilities imaginable for what it means to live with a disability. Weaving images, stories, examples, and ideas together to create a world where it’s possible for people’s abilities to precede their disabilities.

There is a certain magic to the mix of expectations, encouragement, and tough love that’s woven into the DNA of the Viscardi Center and School that brings out the very best in each person who walks through its doors. Beyond academics and life skills, these students are getting schooled in something much more essential: an emotionally resilient mindset.

How to not be defined by their disabilities. How to handle people who’d judge or underestimate them. How to try, fail, and try again. And how to never, ever give up. “Henry Viscardi School taught me to be independent—not only in my movements, but in my thinking,” shared alumnus Dayna Stropkay, “I learned to advocate for myself, and learned what worked and what didn’t work for me.”

While his father was his first champion, during his childhood travels as a disability rights advocate for Easter Seals, John’s life would be forever changed by meeting who would become his most important mentor: Dr. Henry Viscardi.

Dr. Viscardi, who wore prosthetic legs, was a visionary pioneer for disability rights. As an advisor on disability issues to every president from Franklin D. Roosevelt through Jimmy Carter, he was urged by Eleanor Roosevelt to open what would become The Viscardi Center and Henry Viscardi School. Henry Viscardi’s life had a transformational impact on John and so many others with disabilities who he helped bring into mainstream society.

John Kemp is continuing on his legacy. John’s life and work—not to mention awards, prizes, honorary degrees, political appointments and influential commissions—would inspire the most ambitious among us.  ‘Fortunate’ might be the last word you’d use to describe the circumstances of John’s childhood, making his accomplishments even more impressive. With the powerful buffering of mentors, the support and love of influential adult role models, John was able to capitalize on his innate talents and rise to his fullest potential.

At the Henry Viscardi School, building a powerful system of mentors is a critical ingredient of their success. By nourishing their imaginations of what’s possible to achieve, the presence of role models inspires the students to build a world where each of their unique gifts are realized.

 Find out more about The Viscardi Center.
Subscribe to Our Newsletter: For the Love of Conversation