The legendary John Lancaster is a true humanitarian.
By John M. Williams
I met John Lancaster 33-years-ago when I worked for The American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities. I was hired to work at ACCD before he was. Before John came on-board, he was all ready a legend. People kept telling me, “Wait until John comes on-board, he will give us new focus.”
I was anxious to have John come on board. I had heard about his dynamic advocacy at the Paralyzed Veterans of America.
My first meeting with John has always been memorable. I was the director of communications, and for several hours we discussed my role as an advocate for ACCD.
John told me how he envisioned we would work together. He was clear in his vision, and I responded enthusiastically.
For more than a year, it was my pleasure to work with and for John. He was a visionary, an inspiration, and one hell of an advocate. One of our hot issues was ensuring that people with disabilities had access to mainstream transportation. He focused on this issue like a laser beam. Whether he was working to advance opportunities for people with disabilities or opposing obstacles that prevented people with disabilities from being fully included in society, John set high standards for himself and thoseindividuals following him. He was a negotiator’s negotiator and his word was known to be sacred.
As a former executive director for the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, John has been active in the development of human and civil rights of people with disabilities worldwide. For example, John served as a representative for disability employment policy in discussions between the European Union and the United States under the New Trans-Atlantic Agenda. From 2000-2004, he served as policy advisor to the Vietnamese government to develop disability law, policy and programs in Vietnam. As Executive Director of the National Council on Independent Living from 2005-2009, John led NCIL in forming their International Committee to advance the independent living philosophy worldwide. He serves on the Board of the U.S. International Council on Disabilities. And he assists in advocating for the ratification and implementation of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
His international work is not finished. He serves as the treasurer and member of the board of trustees for Handicap International Federation (HI ), an organization that works to improve the rights and conditions of people living in disabling conditions in post-conflict, post disaster and low income countries worldwide. Finally, he serves on the board of directors of the U.S. Institute of Peace.
John has received many honors for his advocacy work. Last year, John received an honorary doctor of science degree at Clarkson University’s 118th Commencement.
The degree was awarded for his leadership and resolute commitment to social justice for the advancement of human and civil rights for people with disabilities worldwide, for his international legislative work and his role as a champion and advocate for the full integration and participation of people with disabilities in society.
Always humble, John, a paraplegic resulting from a single AK-47 round piercing his lungs and hitting his spinal column, said, “Life had now thrown me one big curve ball…an unalterable change. And put in front of me seemingly endless barriers I would not be able to overcome.” John was a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps. He commanded a combat infantry platoon in Vietnam where he earned a Purple Heart and Bronze Star in 1968.
Blest with an indomitable spirit, John with backing from his family, U.S. Veterans Administration, a law degree from Notre Dame and his wife Christine overcame adversity. In his words, “I realized that my past does not own me and that I need not be defined by things that happened more than a decade before. I realized that the past is of little consequence and really has little bearing, if any, on what may or may not happen tomorrow.”
John continued, “What is useful about the past is the lessons, the skills and the tools it provides to create that which has not yet happened I used this realization to build a career around working for the civil and human rights of disabled veterans and people with disabilities. …I learned not to let misfortunes and personal failures define my future or to rest on the laurels of success and accomplishment.”