1991 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"We all need to understand our strengths and build on them, successfully accomplish something every day, every week, every year, and then set new and higher goals to achieve."
John Kemp was born in 1949 with a congenital defect that made him a quadruple amputee. Three months after the birth of his younger sister, when Kemp was only 15 months old, his mother died of cancer. Kemp's father, a civil engineer, raised his three children on his own.
At age two, Kemp was fitted for artificial arms. At three, he received artificial legs. He says he remembers always being able to do almost anything that other kids could, including playing baseball, basketball, and marbles. He believes baseball helped him learn the coordination that is second nature to him today. "I was always the last one chosen for teams at school," he admits, "but I usually surprised myself."
If Kemp had a mentor in his life, it was certainly his father, who, at that time, had to fight to get him admitted to mainstream schools. "I think I'm lucky," he says. "My dad gave all three of us kids values that were really important. He worked hard to keep our family together. He also was a believer in goals and accomplishments and encouraged me to overcome as many hardships as possible without emphasizing inabilities. He believed that every person has something to give to others. He juggled a lot of different things in his life in order to be there for us."
At age 11, Kemp was selected as the National Easter Seal Child and traveled from coast to coast representing all children with disabilities. After finishing high school, he used a scholarship from the National Easter Seal Society to attend Georgetown University. He went on to earn a law degree from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas.
The passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 provided the impetus needed for Kemp to embark on a career path involving advocacy and promoting the rights of all people with disabilities. After several years with the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, Kemp opened a law firm that represents people with disabilities. He also served as president of two human resource consulting firms that specialize in management programs to help employers comply with affirmative action and non-discrimination laws regarding people with disabilities. Subsequently, Kemp became director of human resources, then general counsel and vice president for development at the National Easter Seal Society, before joining United Cerebral Palsy Associations in 1990.
Kemp is editor and publisher of Disability & Employment Reporter, a monthly management newsletter for employers about legal and legislative trends. He has been a speaker at more than 130 programs, conventions, and conferences and is a founding member of the League of Disabled Voters, a nationwide organization formed to promote greater accessibility of polling places and to foster awareness among political candidates of issues of concern to people with disabilities.
In 1987, he was honored by the Dole Foundation, founded by Senator Bob Dole, with its Special Tribute Award in recognition of vigorous advocacy on behalf of people with disabilities. A year later, Kemp was inducted into the National Hall of Fame for Persons with Disabilities.
"People with disabilities are so much closer to poverty," says Kemp. "There's a saying that if you are poor, you stand a higher chance of becoming disabled; and, if you are disabled, you stand a higher chance of becoming and remaining poor."
Looking back on his life, Kemp is quick to say how much he appreciates his family. "My father is the one who really overcame adversity. He was dirt poor, put himself through school, got married to a wonderful woman, had three kids, and then she dies of cancer. He starts up the hill again, professionally and personally, and he succeeds in all walks of life. I was just lucky enough to be born into that family."