Peg Johnson used to say, “You will never get anywhere unless you stick your neck out.” And that is how she lived her 66 years — whether writing a book on disabilities, advocating for accessible sidewalks or traveling globally to promote assistive devices to help the disabled communicate.
Johnson, who was born with cerebral palsy and used a wheelchair for most of her life, died June 23.
“I think, for her, it really meant pushing yourself beyond your abilities and really … following your dreams and your passions,” said Erika Thurston, who became Johnson’s close friend after working as her personal care attendant two decades ago. “Sometimes, in order to do that, you’ve got to stick your neck out there and be a little vulnerable.”
Johnson took pride in holding a job, and worked starting in 1979 in data entry at the downtown Minneapolis library. But her “passion,” Thurston said, was providing comfort to the disabled and awareness to the public about how to interact with the disabled.
Johnson’s speech was difficult to understand, and people often replied by talking louder or talking in simple words because they equated her lack of speech with a lack of intelligence.
“She understood with some people it was just how they reacted, or that they didn’t know how to react,” Thurston said. “She didn’t blame the other person. For them, it might have been a natural reaction. That’s why it was so important for her to become an advocate — to help build awareness.”
Johnson’s efforts came in many forms, such as the support group she formed for people who needed assistive devices to communicate, or “Express Yourself,” the book she wrote about overcoming disabilities.
She made formal presentations at conferences in Australia, Canada and the United States to teach doctors, device manufacturers and speech pathologists about the challenges of her disability and the benefits of assistive communication devices. (Johnson communicated with a Liberator device, which allowed her to type sentences into a keypad, and then it pronounced the words for her.)
She also made informal stops with Thurston to places as random as McDonald’s to hand out fliers and teach people about the disabled. And anytime she encountered a sidewalk in Minneapolis lacking a usable wheelchair ramp, she would call or send a letter to the city and request repairs.
Johnson was like a “second mother” to Thurston and many of the aides who cared for her. She loved turtles, and her house was filled with stuffed and decorative turtles her caregivers and friends picked up on their travels.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Wednesday at Morris Nilsen Funeral Chapel, 6527 Portland Av. S., Richfield.
“She was one of the most loving, caring people,” Thurston said. “She was fun. She had a very good, quirky, almost dry sense of humor. She was so passionate, determined, strong-willed. She wasn’t going to let her disability hold her back.”