Alvaro Gutierrez interviews John Kemp, Director, Viscardi Center, Long Island

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Alvaro Gutierrez


Viscardi Center
I U Willets Rd, Albertson, NY 11507
United States
40° 46' 14.61" N, 73° 38' 57.2388" W

Hello and welcome to project access for all, today our guest is John Kemp. He is the president of the Viscardi Center. We’re going to talk today about the ADA turning 25, about his very interesting life, and about as many things as time allows us.


John Kemp Interview

Alvaro Gutierrez: Hello and welcome to project access for all, today our guest is John Kemp. He is the president of the Viscardi Center. We’re going to talk today about the ADA turning 25, about his very interesting life, and about as many things as time allows us. So John thank you so much for being with us.

John Kemp: It is my pleasure to be with you and thank you for asking me.

Alvaro Gutierrez: My pleasure and I would like to start by saying the ADA has now turned 25 , is there any particular breakthrough in this wonderful legislation that you would like talk with us about?

John Kemp: Well I think that the framework has been set for real meaningful opportunity for employment and for full participation in society but unfortunately some of the enforcement of the laws of the ADA have not occurred and we don’t see enough progress made especially in the employment arena. I’m very disappointed in the lack of growth of employment opportunities for people with disabilities but it really means that there is a great opportunity ahead of us for improving on that and I would hope that people would be able go to a website called is a website for employers to assist them in making sure that they removed all the barriers and they have the proper training and they understand what the law is all about. We can improve the employment opportunities at the local at the real level not a theoretical sense but in a real practical sense employment needs to be improved, but you know, when we go to movie theaters in the United States we now have the option of getting assisted listening devices so that we can hear what’s going on in the movie that physical accessibility is now assumed and not something that we have to worry about. Well you know that it wasn’t about 20 to 25 years ago that we use to worry a lot about I’m going to this hotel or I’m going to this restaurant, I wonder if has one or two steps up and how I’m going to get in there if I am in a wheelchair? All that has gone away for the most and that our expectations are now that a place will be physically accessible to us. What lies ahead as an opportunity is for us to have an expectation of inclusion and full participation once we’re inside the building whether it be a school, a restaurant, a place of employment it’s one thing to physically get in there, it’s another thing to be included in all of what is going on.

Alvaro Gutierrez: Very well said, going back to your start in your career and your life for listeners who don’t know what is John Kemp all about, what can you tell them?

John Kemp: Well I was born without arms or legs, off at the elbows and the knees and I had minor surgeries on my legs right at the knees to remove little toes that were an anomaly at birth and I had a little thumb on my arms, on one arm, so I essentially have arms down to just above the elbow, one leg that goes to almost to the knee and my right leg goes to a knee and beyond. So I have one knee and I can get up and walk around but many times for any lengthy getting around I use a little 3 wheel scooter wheelchair to buzz around and you know see the campus, put it in the back of my car, get it out, go to places, and anyway that’s the way I started my life. My dad was my best advocate, my mom died when I was very young, when I was 15 months old and my little sister was 3 months old. My mother died of ovarian cancer and my dad raised 3 of us kids. I have a sister 4 years older. They’re both living doing well. They were not born with disabilities, I’m the only one with a disability and my dad went about to make sure that I would have as regular a life as possible. I went to regular schools from kindergarten all the way through high school, college, law school, and decided that you know at an early age that I wasn’t going to be a professional baseball player which I wanted to be because the kids got bigger and faster and could throw the ball much further than I could ever throw it so I gave up my dream of being a pro baseball player and started using my head and thinking about what I was going to do and studying a little bit more and knowing that I wanted to you know become a lawyer. So I became a lawyer and have really focused on being a lawyer and a business person for all of my adulthood and it’s been a great great life I cannot complain. I have a beautiful wife she has children from a previous marriage. I have mine and I’m a grandfather to 5 grandsons who think nothing about the fact that I have a disability. They’re aware of it they know I have limitations but they’re not concerned at all about it so I have a great life and a great job.

Alvaro Gutierrez: How wonderful John, and we know that you have served on many committees and boards so on and so forth. How important is for you to be active in the community saying we need to be advocating for our civil rights and for who we are and standing up together with one voice and be able to say if this is not good we have to do something about it instead of staying of at home just doing nothing about it.

John Kemp: It’s very important and I’m glad you raised this issue you know not everybody in say , the Women’s movement wants to be a very loud and outspoken advocate for women you know some women chose not take on that role. Some advocates you know will take it on, but you know in our disability movement there are people with disabilities who really don’t care about becoming an outspoken advocate they just want to live a life that they choose and more than anything I think I want that for all people with disabilities, but for those of us who want to change the world for the better like you Alvaro.

Alvaro Gutierrez: Thank you.

John Kemp: We decide that we want to be involved and to change things we have to get involved and so we get smart about the issues. We learn as much as possible. We try to be fair and reasonable in our requests but if we don’t get what we want then we need to keep pushing, keep advocating, try new tactics. None of them should be illegal but we need to be very forceful and demanding about when injustice occurs and what does justice look like so we play educator as much as advocate.

Alvaro Gutierrez: I like that part the educator as much as advocate for sure, you are the co-founder of, I like the title, American Association of People with Disabilities can you tell us about this organization?

John Kemp: I sure can. We’ll call it AAPD (American Association of People with Disabilities) my very good friend Paul Hern who happened to graduate from the Henry Viscardi School here and ended up in Washington, DC working for Senator Dole and his foundation. He and I were good friends for many many years and we would see each other around the country and we both ended up in Washington, DC in 1990 and we started getting together and having a couple of beers and saying, there ought to be, there should be, there could be this kind of world organization. That’s an individual organization that promotes the political and economic power of people with disabilities and there was no cross disability organization at the time. There are many disability specific organizations for people with blindness, for people with deafness, for people with intellectual disabilities etc, but there was not one organization that tried to pull everybody together and to really gather our political and economic power and so Paul and I dreamed this up over many beers over many nights and we came up with the AAPD. It launched in 1995 and today it is one of the most respected disability organizations in the United States and it’s a model that I think a lot of organizations are trying to copy or at least for them to join us in the effort. I served on the board for many years and was chairman for a couple of years and the fact that it’s still going strong 20 years later that’s a testament to I think what we thought was a good idea really was a good idea and it’s doing well today.

Alvaro Gutierrez: It’s funny I have so many questions here written and the one I’m going ask is not here, but it’s a follow up. I always see on social media for instance, groups about blindness, hard of hearing, deafness, blah, blah, blah and I think to myself “why not one whole group of people with disabilities being in the same boat understanding each other, loving each other and helping each other so I love your idea John and Paul that I’m sure I’ll be able to have on the show in the future because this is remarkable as they say in the UK you know because unity is what we are lacking and what we need instead of saying we need to your go your way and I go my way. So that I think it is a brilliant idea, no wonder it’s so successful. What is the website?

John Kemp: not org it’s

Alvaro Gutierrez: Ok wonderful. Education, today the opportunities and the challenges and the same times people with disabilities face, how do you see them? Do you see light at the tunnel in the educational field?

John Kemp: I think we’re getting there. I run a school for kids who are very medically fragile and children who come to our school come here because we have the medical supports and the technological and human supports to allow them to go to a school, a regular kind of public school for seven hours a day. If we didn’t exist these students would be taught at home for an hour a day or they would end up in a hospital setting where the law only requires that they receive one to two hours of educational instruction a day. The school districts bus kids here. They have a whole set of classes that they have to go to. They have to take the exams that all the other students in public schools are taking to be able to advance and to get ultimately a diploma and so our kids are really sick and there is no place for children who are sick and severely disabled to be able to go in New York other than a place like this. There are a few other schools that are around the country and we’re starting to collaborate with them and the idea of inclusion is a very appropriate and noble and worthwhile idea, but more importantly is you cannot sacrifice the needs of a child for an education. You can’t sacrifice that just because you want that child to be included in a regular school. If the regular school setting is not the place where they can thrive and they can’t get a good education and that they’ll be ignored and their physical and medical needs will be ignored than you know inclusion is not the right answer for everybody. We have a very wide spectrum of needs in our community and people operate at different levels on that spectrum and we have chosen to serve children who are medically fragile and very severely physically disabled with the expertise and the human supports all concentrated here. So I’m very proud at what we do but I’m a big inclusionist at the same time. I think you know I went to a regular school when I was four years old and I think part of who I am and my identity is built around my ability to get along with other kids without disabilities.

Alvaro Gutierrez: Now tell us more about Viscardi, for instance you have a wonderful website that is very interesting in being accessible for all. I was able to discover that being legally blind myself, and being able to navigate it and navigate on my Iphone and navigate it very well and so I appreciate that concern of yours for doing that. So can you tell us more about what can you find in your organization in the website of the Viscardi Center.

John Kemp: Well we’ve made a commitment to try to reach the highest levels of accessibility in the areas of information and communication accessibility. That is a goal as well as a practice that we have here. You never know who is going to come to the website you have no idea because a website is available literally around the world and to anybody and everybody if they can get on the worldwide web they can possibly come here. We don’t know if that person coming here is blind or deaf, may have other difficulties, may have intellectual limitations that require them to see information or to obtain information and it have rendered in a way that they can understand it. So we look at all different aspects of accessibility and we have as a policy and I hope we’re true to it that we will not post anything on our websites that is not captioned and there is an opportunity to obtain the information in real time in an alternative format. So it is both a goal and practice of the Viscardi Center to make all of its good information as available as possible to as many people as possible.

Alvaro Gutierrez: Wonderful, that’s, that’s inclusion right there.

John Kemp: It is inclusion and if you ever see something that we are not doing well or doing right you need to let us know that and we will fix it as quickly as we can.

Alvaro Gutierrez: Thank you for that John. I know that I talk in the name of everybody else in saying that is very important for us all, and I know that time flies. Can you tell us how a little bit how assistive technology is helping children and people with all kinds of abilities these days.

John Kemp: You bet. You know assistive technology seems like a complex set of words or ideas and it’s really not and it really should be looked on as, and this is my optimistic upside self now talking, assistive technologies should maximize a person’s independence and productivity and ability to communicate in real time with whomever they wish and to live as independently as possible. So we look for assistive technologies from low-tech to high-tech that empowers an individual to control his or her environment and to be able to keep up and go as fast as they want to go. Too many times we think about trying to just lift people up to where everyone else might be. We think assistive technology should be spring boarding people as far ahead as they want to go and as fast as they want to go. So if somebody wants to use Dragon Dictate as a product for example by Nuance and use that because they have difficulty using their hands to type and they can speak it and it will come out as text and they can go really fast because they trained their computer to understand their voice. Go for it you know, get it and go for it as fast as possible. That’s what assistive technology means to us here and we have children with very significant disabilities who are medically fragile exposed to the products and services that are available as much as we can. I think one of the big problems and maybe Alvaro you would agree with this, is that we as consumers or as people with disabilities don’t always know what products and services are out there.

Alvaro Gutierrez: Absolutely.

John Kemp: And when somebody tells us did you know that this exists, it’s usually coming from another person with a disability who has found it.

Alvaro Gutierrez: YES!

John Kemp: Right, we learn from each other more than we learned from a mom, a dad, an employer, you know a school teacher. We learn from each other what works and what might work for us. I use scooter wheelchair, I learned about the best scooter for me from another person who is a scooter user and said you ought to try this one because it might work better for you. So we’re our own best educators, and I think assistive technologies there are so many out there that we should be sharing as much information about how they impact our lives and how they could can impact other people’s with disabilities lives.

Alvaro Gutierrez: Very true, and yes it’s absolutely true, for instance I use an I-phone and for me you know many times people tell me, hey have you tried this, have you tried that, this works for people that are blind and I’m like Oh My God and then we are on board and you end helping them as well in finding this.

John Kemp: Absolutely and this can happen anywhere and online and in meeting places, and so that’s the beauty of the web it’s not a, it’s a virtual place, it’s not a physical place.

Alvaro Gutierrez: Right, right, right. I don’t know where have you been around the world, can you tell us a little bit

John Kemp: Sure

Alvaro Gutierrez: of your experience and is there any kind of ADA going on in Europe or in any other country.

John Kemp: Yes, the EU has done a very good job and the countries in the EU have done a great job of adopting ADA type legislation based on the convention on the rights of people with disabilities and most of the countries in Europe, in Asia, in South America, in Africa have adopted the UN convention on the rights of people with disabilities. There are at least ¾ of the countries of the world have adopted it and ratified it and made it part of their public policy for their citizens and I’m ashamed to say that in the United States our president has signed it but a treaty requires the ratification of our United States Senate and we still do not have it ratified and it is a shameful thing for the United States not to have ratified the UN convention on the rights of people with disabilities. I worked very closely with my disability hero Senator Bob Dole and Marca Bristo and a number of people, Andy Imparato we’re all working very hard to get the last few senators we need to get a 2/3 majority to ratified it and to vote affirmably to support the UN convention.

Alvaro Gutierrez: John, let me try to understand this a little bit. If you have the ADA and this other treaty, they don’t overlap they work together?

John Kemp: They work together, and because we were really first in the world to have something like an ADA that we’re in pretty good shape without the convention, but so why would we want to have the convention. Of a convention is an international treaty that is monitored by a committee of state parties in other words, a committee made up of countries that already fully ratified the law and can receive reports from countries and give feedback to countries about what they’re doing and how to improve what they’re doing. Because we haven’t ratified it yet we can’t even be at the table, we can’t even be a voting member with the other countries that have already ratified this and we’re sitting on the sidelines just watching and we have so much to give and so much to offer that it really is a shame that all of what we do here isn’t kind of shared through the convention its shared around and in of spite the convention and that’s not the way it should be the United States is bigger and better than that and we’re ashamed that we’re not in more of a participatory and even a leadership role on a global basis.

Alvaro Gutierrez: Are you optimistic this year before the end of the year can this change or it’s going to take more time?

John Kemp: I’m guardedly optimistic. I’m not fully optimistic. I think so many of the senators who we need to come over and switch from no to yes have dug in and have decided that they’re not going to move it. It may take another couple of years but if we keep our advocacy in a very positive light and not get nasty or mean about it and really educate our senators as to why it is important for us to be at the table and learning from other countries then maybe we can get it done this year. I’m guardedly optimistic.

Alvaro Gutierrez: If someone listening wants to write those senators, how can they do that?

John Kemp: Well there’s a terrific organization in Washington that is really the gateway to the world and on issues of disability and it’s called USICD (United States International Counsel on Disabilities) and you go to a website called They will be able to see what we’re doing and write to the executive director, who’s terrific, named David Morrissey and he will be able to direct them to the right place and to the right senate offices. That would be very welcomed Alvaro.

Alvaro Gutierrez: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Can you please repeat again the website?

John Kemp: I certainly can, you go to

Alvaro Gutierrez: Great, and for our listeners remember the world cannot be changed alone. You got to move.

John Kemp: Exactly, exactly right. We need everybody’s help.

Alvaro Gutierrez: Yes, yes, yes. A quick question do you have any favorite mobile app?

John Kemp: (Laughing) That’s funny I use a bunch of them and I wish I could pick out one. I travel so much and I’m so impressed with Delta airlines that I use Delta airlines app all the time. So that one I use just about, you know just about every time I travel which is every week or every other week I’m on a Delta airlines flight. So I’m very familiar with that one. I check the weather all the time, I check CNN for news, I check ESPN for sports. (Laughing) So weather, news, sports I feel like it’s the 10 o’clock news or the 11 o’clock news you know (Laughing).

Alvaro Gutierrez: Very good John.

John Kemp: And you notice that it has nothing to do with disability.

Alvaro Gutierrez: Yeah, yeah, yeah, absolutely, absolutely.

John Kemp: Very inclusive.

Alvaro Gutierrez: Absolutely, absolutely and because I’m a dreamer myself, maybe it’s my zodiac sign Cancer, I have to ask you about what your biggest dream in life when you go to sleep and you say oh my god this is what I want to see happening in my lifetime?

John Kemp: I want to see a United State’s president who can be out and proud about having a disability be elected. I would like any head of state who has a disability to be out and proud about their life with a disability and would I like to see leaders of corporations who have disabilities, and many of them do, to be out and proud about having a disability. We need role models really badly.

Alvaro Gutierrez: Yes, I cannot agree more with you John that’s for sure. I have three little questions from someone you very know well but before that my last question would be, is there any specific misconception about people with disabilities that sometimes you say give me a break it’s time we pass that?

John Kemp: Yes, the presumption that we are not capable of competing in this world; working, going to school to the presumption that we are less than non-disabled individuals is a pet peeve of mine. It annoys me and angers me to have that still persist.

Alvaro Gutierrez: So now from New York City I have the honor to introduce from the MOPD, the New York Commissioner Victor Calise, with some inspirational questions for John Kemp.

Victor Calise: Hi Alvaro and hi everybody listening, I’m Victor Calise, the Commissioner of The Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. First, thanks for all your help, for your support and your commitment to New York City’s ADA 25 Anniversary. My first question for you is, what does the ADA and this 25th Anniversary mean for you ?

John Kemp: the ADA and the 25th anniversary celebration celebrating this year in 2015 is a profound acknowledge month of the worthwhileness of people with disabilities to be full participating citizens in this world. It was a great policy statement in 1990 when it was passed and with more enforcement and more understanding and more education it can lead us to the promise that the ADA made which is, economic empowerment and full participation, equality of opportunity. We can enjoy all of these activities and we are going to celebrate the progress the ADA has meant after 25 years.

Victor Calise: My second question, as you know the ADA looks out for the wellbeing of people with disabilities, so all of these areas where the ADA is improving people’s lives; employment, transportation, public accommodations, public services and telecommunications, which one do you think needs the most improvement?

John Kemp: Areas of the ADA that really I think can still be improved upon would be employment, it can be the social acceptance and understanding of disability as merely another condition that someone has, a characteristic that someone possesses, and it need not be defining or limiting to any individual in this country and in this world. My real hope is that we have much greater opportunities for full employment and that transportation and education opportunities are available to all people including people with disabilities.

Victor Calise: And my final question, what’s your message for any young people listening to encourage them to help celebrate and keep the spirit of the ADA moving forward?

John Kemp: My dream for young people is that they have the greatest and the widest dreams possible. No child is born with a biased, and no child is born thinking about who that they’re going to discriminate in this world. They learn that from adults and other people and by the behaviors, the inappropriate behaviors and the language and other signals to them about who they like and who they don’t like. It’s their parent’s, it’s their teacher’s, it’s their role models in their world that teach them discrimination. There is no room for discrimination, illegal discrimination in this world today. So I’m hoping that young people grow up unencumbered with any of these biases and think only about what dreams they want to chase and which dreams they want to succeed at. That’s what I want for young people with disabilities.

Alvaro Gutierrez: great, and so, it’s so many things that I would like to ask but time is limited.

John Kemp: I didn’t say anything about the ADA Pride parade. The Disability Pride parade, if I could just add a sentence if you want?

Alvaro Gutierrez: Please do.

John Kemp: Ok, one way in which young people can join this celebration would be on July 12th, 2015 in New York City, there will be a Disability Pride parade, the very first one of its kind and I strongly, strongly encourage all young people to come to New York City and those who live here to participate in the Disability Pride parade that the great Commissioner Victor Calise is organizing and will host and celebrating the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Alvaro Gutierrez: Wonderful John and for our listeners, how can people can get in touch with you?

John Kemp: They certainly may email me at or they can call me at my office and here’s my number in the US it is (516) 465-1470.

Alvaro Gutierrez: Well what a great time, and oh before I let go you have to tell us this very, very, very distinguished award you have got from the Dole Institute. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

John Kemp: Well gosh, your very kind, thank you even for even mentioning it, I’m a humble guy, so all I can say, is that Senator Dole selected me to be the 12th recipient of the Dole Leadership Prize for my work, my lifelong work in the disability community nationally and internationally and I get to rub shoulders with people like Nelson Mandela, President George Bush the 1st, Polish President Lech Walesa, Congressman John Lewis who marched with Martin Luther King and is a legend in this world, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, formerly Mayor of New York when 9/11 hit, people like that and I am so overwhelmed and humbled by it and I told the senator that I have to live up to all the good work that they’ve done by living a good life myself and doing the best I can for other people.

Alvaro Gutierrez: I think that’s the best end we could ever imagine. So, John thank you for your time and for your passion, for your commitment and for your honesty, which is always super important and I hope someday to meet you in person.

John Kemp: And I want to thank you for who you are and the philosophy of life that you have and the communication that you are getting out about how people with disabilities can live a good life. I thank you and I really look forward to meeting you in person as well, thanks Alvaro.

Alvaro Gutierrez: Thank you so much John, and for our listener’s remember you can like us on Facebook at Project Access for All. You can also follows on twitter at Project Access for All and visit our website at From Alvaro and from the people here at ABS have a wonderful day.