Janice Jackson remembers being a 20-something flirting with the young men who worked at the Baltimore rehabilitation center where she visited her brother as he was recovering from a car accident that left him paralyzed.
Three years later, they would be the same attendants responsible for bathing her after she was hit by a car and paralyzed. The men hadn't done anything wrong, said Jackson, now 53, but she felt humiliated by a loss of dignity.
That experience, Jackson said, revealed her life's purpose and led her to the White House on Friday, where President Barack Obama recognized her with the nation's second-highest civilian honor, the Citizens Medal, for the network she built to help hundreds of disabled women in Maryland feel empowered, beautiful and capable of dreaming.
"I would have never touched as many people in my life if I wasn't in this chair," said Jackson, of Northeast Baltimore. "I know people, a lot of people, who are able-bodied walking around with all their faculties, and they're just as handicapped in their spirit and their soul.
"I would rather sit in this chair than to change places with someone who hasn't found their purpose, who hasn't found their contentment, what they're called to do."
Jackson organized several support groups that culminated in 2007 with her creation of Women Embracing Abilities Now, or WEAN, a nonprofit mentoring group affiliated with the League for People with Disabilities.
During the 30-minute ceremony at the White House, Jackson was among 11 Americans who received the award for civic service. The 12th recipient died last month at age 92.
The president also issued posthumous honors to the six Sandy Hook Elementary School educators who died in the Dec. 14 shooting in Newtown, Conn.
"What binds us together, what unites us, is a single sacred word: citizen," Obama told the crowd of about 200 guests. "It's a word that, as I said in my State of the Union address, doesn't just describe our nationality or our legal status, the fact that we hold a passport.
"It defines our way of life. It captures our belief in something bigger than ourselves — our willingness to accept certain obligations to one another, and to embrace the idea that we're all in this together; that out of many, we are one."
Terry Shima, a Gaithersburg man and retired diplomat, received the medal for his service in the Army during World War II and his commitment to Japanese-American veterans.
"I cannot believe that I was standing in the White House to receive the medal from the president of the United States," said the 90-year-old Shima, a son of Japanese immigrants. "Many volunteers were far more deserving than me."
Shima is chairman of the Japanese American Veterans Association's outreach committee and was the organization's director until last year. Shima served in a segregated unit in the Army during World War II, as a way to "to prove our loyalty" in a country that viewed Japanese-Americans with "heavy suspicion that we're not loyal American citizens."
Jackson said she, too, was humbled by the opportunity to meet the president. In addition to the ceremony, Obama posed for portraits with award recipients.
"When I saw him, he said, 'You look so pretty today,' and I said, 'You too.' I am sure he's heard it before," Jackson said. "He is so personable. I also told him to tell Michelle I love he,r and he said, 'I will' — and I believe he will."
Still, she said, the most meaningful part of the day was being able to experience it with her family, including her father, brother and sisters. Her ailing mother was unable to attend.
"My mom and dad have been through so much, to be able to give this gift to them, to share this moment with them, that's what I am more excited about," said Jackson, who is also an adjunct professor of ethics and human services at the University of Baltimore. "Just showing my mom and dad, 'Yeah, life dealt us some hard times, but through it all we stuck together.' "
Jackson was paralyzed after she was hit by a car in Capitol Heights in September 1984 while she stopped on the side of a highway and left her car to talk to a friend. The driver who hit her had dropped a cigarette in his lap. When he looked up, it was too late to avoid hitting Jackson.
Through years of rehabilitation, she has since regained the use of her left arm and leg.
Obama highlighted Jackson during his remarks, saying, "She was told by her doctors that the only thing she would ever move again were her shoulders. After suffering an injury like that, nobody would have faulted Janice for just focusing on herself. But as she recovered, and she regained her strength, she resolved to give some of that strength to others in need."
From her experience in the rehabilitation center, Jackson said, she found her voice. She refused to accept the assistance of male staff for bathing and other personal hygiene matters and coordinated a meeting of the other disabled women to draw strength in their common experience. Twenty-five came to the first meeting.
From there, Jackson went on to form WEAN, which runs on about $5,000 a year in donations and grants, and serves hundreds of women. They work with women with physical and emotional disabilities, specializing in disabilities acquired after birth.
Jackson and her group mentors meet with women in their homes and rehabilitation centers to counsel them, organize group sessions and events, such as a crab feast and an annual "Queen for a Day" pampering session. The group also provides workshops on topics such as self-esteem, sexuality and advocacy.
"WEAN is about empowerment," Jackson said. "We focus on what you can do, not what you used to be able to do."
David Greenberg, president of the League for People with Disabilities, said he wasn't surprised that out of 6,000 nominees, Obama chose Jackson.
"Everybody in the disabilities community knows Janice and knows if you need something done and you need a passionate advocate, you talk to Janice," Greenberg said. "There is no keeping Janice Jackson down."
Tonja Ringgold, one of Jackson's former professors and a member of the WEAN board, said she is impressed by her friend's indomitable spirit. Just last year, Ringgold said, Jackson had four surgeries for various ailments, but the setbacks did not stop Jackson from serving her community.
"To know her story is to say, 'Wow,' " Ringgold said. "She has taken that tragedy back then and turned it into a blessing for others. She's like a phoenix."
The Citizens Medal — a civilian honor second only to the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Medal of Freedom — is awarded to individuals who have "performed exemplary deeds of service for their country or their fellow citizens."
While Jackson said she was thrilled to meet the president — she has a cardboard cutout of the Obamas bought on eBay displayed in her living room — she hopes receiving the honor will help her expand her organization. Plans are under way to establish a sister group in Charlotte, N.C.
"Of the accolades we've gotten," she said, "I think this one is the highest honor, but I am more excited about the platform it is going to give us, to get our stories out there and to put a new face on women with disabilities."
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