Dr. JR Harding | UWF Alumnus ‘93
Fighting for inclusion.
By Dr. JR Harding
Five days before my seventeenth birthday, my back was broken. My world shattered. But not my spirit.
My new path was arduous and loaded with uncertainty. I didn’t fully understand what paralysis meant. I had to learn how to deal with the psychological, physical, interpersonal and self-identity issues so I could survive and thrive as a quadriplegic.
The year was 1983. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) did not exist. I faced discrimination and barriers at every turn. My fight for inclusion was far reaching.
Going to UWF was monumental for me. I was one of the first disabled students, if not the very first, on the UWF campus. It was my rise from the ashes. It gave me the chance to live up to my own expectations. It was the place and time in my life that I learned how to advocate and work with politicians to make a significant impact on the lives of persons with disabilities (PWDs).
Today, I live by a simple philosophy: living with a severe disability can be a normal part of life. I refuse to be excluded from any economic, political, cultural, or educational activities. I no longer feel helpless, deprived, or excluded. Discrimination is now only an abstract term that I do not feel or encounter, except for the occasional curb or flight of stairs. Through mutual care, love, and support of my fellow persons, my paralysis is merely a fact of my life, no longer the bondage I once considered it.
With decades of developing and implementing accessibility standards, I’ve become a tenacious advocate with a mission to empower persons with disabilities, seniors and those with special needs to live life to the fullest at work, home and play. Through my experience, I strive to help people of all walks of life navigate through the unfamiliar landscape of disabilities.
- Started a group at UWF called Students with Alternative Needs
- Helped design the first accessibility transition plan and reshape numerous buildings on the UWF campus
- Placed students with disabilities into the Strategic Master Plan of the State University System for the first time (1998)
- Shaped numerous pieces of legislation as a seven-time Florida gubernatorial appointee under four different governors
- Served as the Chairman of the Florida Commission for Transportation Disadvantaged, Vice Chairman of the Governor’s Commission on Disabilities and Vice Chairman of the Governor’s ADA Working Group
- Helped pass the Florida 2012 accessibility standards (building off of the federal work and retaining additional Florida standards)
- Helped facilitate employment opportunities for approximately 75,000 Floridians with disabilities
- Facilitated 500 million trips for transportation disadvantaged Floridians over a 10-year window
- Raised $10 million for The William J. Rish Recreational Park which provides persons with disabilities (PWDs) a safe beach experience that is completely ADA accessible
- Made significant contributions to public policy as a two-time U.S. presidential appointee
- Shaped the 2004 national accessibility guidelines which became the new national standards in 2010 (which included recreation, swimming pools, cruise ships and more)
- Shaped outdoor accessibility standards for federal properties
- Contributed to the 2006 volunteer voting system guidelines to help PWD’s vote independently
- Helped facilitate the passing of the nation’s only gas station accessibility standards for PWDs
- Presented on disability issues at different business conferences over 100 times
- Authored two books and is a recognized disability expert who is frequently quoted in the news regarding disability issues
Through advocacy efforts on Capitol Hill, I work collaboratively with federal and state agencies to ensure laws are implemented and enforced.
I also continue to educate others and provide guidance on Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards for universal accessible design – for corporations, businesses, industries, community developers, architects and residential and commercial builders. I bring a functional understanding of these standards due to living, working and traveling with a significant disability for more than 30 years.