Business Week columnist and publisher of Assistive Technology
News, journalist John
M. Williams assures me hes always accurate in his reporting
even though he may not be the quickest. Author John Williams has earned
several awards for his achievements in delivering the news to the
nation over the past 40 years. His expansive career has focused on
covering a realm of people and subjects within the world of disability,
and he accredits his understanding and instinct to raise awareness
of disability issues to his own impairment of stuttering.
In a 2011 piece called Speaking Proudly of The Kings
Speech, Williams examines the similarities between himself
and the main character King George VI. He is currently working on
a book of this subject, depicting how his own struggle with stuttering
has contributed to his success in becoming one of the most admired
reporters of disability in the country. Listening in astonishment
to the chronicles of John Williams fascinating career, ABILITYs
Kristal Docter discovers in this intimate interview what makes Williams
an internationally-respected leader and advocate for the disability
Kristal Docter: Throughout your 40-year career of helping people
in the disability community, what have been some of your most memorable
John Williams: I was thinking about that the other day. Let me give
you some stories. In the year 2000, when I was writing my column for
Business Week, I interviewed Al Gore on what he would do if he
became president to help the 64 million people with disabilities in
the country. After I interviewed him, I tried for months to interview
George Bush and they kept saying no. My editor at Business Week
said I should write a column saying, Why wont the son
of the man who signed the Americans with Disabilities Act meet with
me and tell my readers what he would do as president to advance opportunities
for people with disabilities? So, I wrote the column. It came
out on a Wednesday. In two days, George Bushs office received
thousands of emails, thousands of calls, asking him to let me interview
him. Three days later, I got a call from the Bush headquarters telling
me that Bush would be in Maine in the next four or five days and he
would grant me an interview, one hour. I thought that was awesome.
Docter: Yeah! Nothing like forcing our leaders to pay attention.
Williams: When my editor and I went up to Maine to do the interview,
Bush made an announcement on his New Freedom Initiative program, which
was a program designed to spend some money to help churches and synagogues
become more accessible to people with disabilities. There were also
some other things in it. When he gave his speech, 98 percent of his
15-minute speech came from columns I had written. My boss looked at
me and asked me if I had written his speech. I said no. He said, Is
he going to give you royalties? Bush saw my name tag and he
said, Oh, Ive been waiting for you. Im going to
offer you a job in my administration. There was actually some
talk about him offering me a position as his liaison to the disability
community, but nothing ever happened, and if they had offered it to
me, I would never have taken it.
Docter: Why would you have turned down such a high-powered position?
Williams: Because I thought that they werent really interested
in people with disabilities, and I was right.
Docter: Such a great story, but Im sure you have more
Williams: During Senator John McCains campaign to be president
in the year 2000, I was invited to spend a couple of days in New Hampshire
with him. I was told I could do whats called ride the
bus, which meant the press would ride on the bus where McCain
was or I would get on a bus behind him. So on my first day, every
time I tried to get a question in to McCain on disability, I would
get shut out by really competitive reporters. And as the day wore
on, I kept getting more and more pushed back.
The last campaign stop that McCain made that night was at the gym
in New Hampshire. When McCain got off and started walking down the
hall, I pushed my way right up to his side. I had my tape recorder,
and all the way down the hall, I kept asking him questions about disability,
and he kept answering me. I pissed off at least a dozen reporters
because I wouldnt budge at all.
Docter: But thats how you get the story. Very impressive,
Williams: Tom Brokaw from NBC had been on one of those buses all day,
and I had talked to him a couple times, and he came up to me after
that long walk and he said, Mr. Williams, youre a goddam
good reporter. You got your story. And I said, I did.
I got my story.
I helped make disability issues national, and that made me extremely
proud. The great thing about my time with Business Week, I got every
person I went after. I never had an editor tell me no.
Docter: How did you go about making such an impact on the disability
Williams: Luck! (laughs) And the great email fans. Any time
I had something really good, I would email. I have an email list of
44,000 which I have built up over the years. 99.9 percent of those
emails are from people who responded to articles that Ive written.
I always knew that if I could get the right partner, who would let
me write about disability, I could turn disability issues into national
issues. Business Week gave me that chance. I never worked with a better
bunch of people in my life, never. They were just great. I was a contractor
to them all the years that I wrote for them, but they treated me like
Ill tell you what got me into this field. In 1978, I was working
for the America Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities (ACCD). I
was the director of communication, and I stuttered severely. I had
a stutter rate of 90 to 95 percent, which is quite high. Also, some
of my blocks used to last up to half a minute, sometimes
a little longer. Part of my job was to testify up on Capitol Hill,
to go out and speak to groups about our mission at ACCD. A good friend
of mine suggested that I go see Dr. Jimmy Hillis at George Washington
University, who was the head of the speech language center, and I
did. Dr. Hillis said, John, Id like to put you on an 18-month
program. You come to me two to three times a week, one hour per session,
and I bet that at the end of 18 months, there will be times where
you wont stutter at all.
I was skeptical of the program, but it changed my whole life. He had
a robot that looked like R2D2 from the Star Wars movies. This robot
would speak to me electronically. When I was stuttering, Id
see where I started to stutter, I would see where the explosiveness
came. I learned so much from that. What happened was, the more I learned
about how speech operates, the more confident I became myself, and
the less stuttering I had. At the end of 18 months, Dr. Hillis came
to me and said, John, I cant teach you any more. Go out
and stutter no more. And my whole life started to change at
that time, because as I started to have fluent speech, I started to
feel better about myself physically and psychologically. This was
in the late 1980s. I said, If a computer can do this for me,
what can it do for people who are severely disabled?
Docter: So thats how you became interested in assistive
technology, now a widely-used term which you coined, in fact.
Williams: They used to use the term vehicle-efficient technology.
I got information on different users, and I started to shop around
to people like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and they began
picking up my stories. In 1982, I was writing a story on a blind man
who used a talking terminal, and I was trying to decide how I would
describe the technology. I played around with words and phrases for
a good 90 minutes. I came up with the phrase assistive technology,
and at that time the word assistive wasnt even in
the English language. So, I used it in an article that I wrote for
the Washington Post. The editor let it go by. So I said, Well,
maybe Ill use it again and again. Now its become
a standard term, and I could kick myself, because I could have copyrighted
that, and if I had, Id be a rich man right now.
Docter: You were just being a creative wordsmith and journalist.
Who knew we had to copyright our terminology? Back to overcoming your
own disabilityI read your article in which you compared yourself
to the character in The Kings Speech, which I thought was quite
brave. Id really like to know how youve used your struggle
with stammering to benefit your career.
Williams: I think my stuttering has helped me a lot in understanding
the challenges that people with different disabilities have to face
on a daily basis. It gives me the drive to succeed. When I was in
college, I kept taking job interviews, and I kept hearing the same
message. Wed like to hire you. Youre intellectually
smart, but we wont hire you because you stutter. That
really pissed me off. That happened to me scores of times, and every
time it happened, it just made me more determined to succeed. Later
in my career, though, I can tell you that no editor ever told me I
couldnt do a story because I stutter. No editor ever said that.
When I went to an editor and said, I want to do this story,
this is why, these are my contacts, this is how I would approach it,
that editor has always said to me, Go ahead. That showed
a lot of confidence in me.
Prior to getting into the disability community, I was a reporter for
Army Times publishing company where I covered the Pentagon. I was
also an environmental writer for a couple of years; then, I worked
for Raytheon Publications where I covered NASA.
Docter: How has stuttering affected you when youre conducting
interviews? How do you overcome that?
Williams: Hypnosis. As long as I self-hypnotize myself, as long as
my concentration is focused on one thing, I dont stutter as
much. One of the other things I do when I interview is, I try to look
the person right in the eye, because if they dont blink, then
I know Ive got my focus. If I have my focus, my speech is in
most cases very fluent. However, Ive had people whove
gotten nervous when I look them straight in the eye and they start
moving their heads or they ask me not to look at them. In fact, Ive
had men ask me if I was gay because I looked them straight in the
eye. I said, No, its just the way I have to produce fluency.
Docter: (laughs) Thats interesting.
Williams: In the 80s, the Washington Post ran a number of stories
by me, and that got me a lot of recognition. Ive had more than
2,000 articles published in newspapers and magazines, online, and
that makes me proud.
Docter: It should. Wow, thats amazing. I myself have been
clinically diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and
have written about it on a blog and hope to someday write a book about
it as well. What advice do you have for someone like me, whos
really beginning her career as a writer with a disability?
Williams: Stick to it. Get your name out there. I pride myself on
being accurate. When I wrote for Business Week, I did more
than 200 columns for them. In all the columns that I wrote, there
were only three mistakes, and they werent made by me, they were
made by editors. I pride myself on being accurate. I will go back
four or five times to somebody who Ive quoted or Ive gotten
information from to make sure that Im accurate, and then I try
to use additional sources to see if I can get the same information.
Your personal integrity means a lot. And listen to your editors
advice. The second thing is, write articles about your disability
and how you deal with it. Ive written maybe 40 articles about
my stuttering at different times in my life. It sounds as though I
had it really good, but there have been times in my life in which
my stuttering was a drag. But, Ive never been afraid to do a
story. Ive never been afraid to go after people. When I would
say, John Williams calling from Business Week, 99 percent
of the people that I called would call me back.
Docter: Thats a great feeling for a journalist.
Williams: For years I didnt like using phones. Phones made me
very uncomfortable. I always wanted to do an interview one-on-one.
Docter: I much prefer that, too.
Williams: There are advantages. You can see a persons body language
which will betray if theyre fighting something, if something
makes them feel uncomfortable. You cant see that on the phone.
Docter: I agree. Its a shame I dont get to meet you in
Williams: Oh, Ive got a good story for you! In the year 2000,
the American States Hearing and Language Association (ASHLA) gave
me the Charles Van Riper Lifetime Achievement Award. Charles Van Riper
was almost a god in the field of stuttering. They gave me the award
because of the awards that I had gotten as a writer and the fact that
I was so widely read. I accepted the award in front of 2,500 people.
I had written a speech and was going over it before I was called on
stage to accept the award, and I had taken that speech out of my jacket
pocket, and when I put it back in my pocket, I didnt put it
in right, and it slipped out and fell on the floor. I walked out on
stage, reached into my pocket and it was not there. So, I ad-libbed
a speech for two-and-a-half minutes. (laughs)
Docter: Oh, my gosh! (laughs)
Williams: And afterwards, people came up to me and said, What
a great speech! I had written a better speech, or so I thought.
Docter: Sometimes its best to just express what you feel
at that moment, and in this instance it obviously worked. I also think
everything happens for a reason. So what projects are you working
on at the moment?
Williams: Im working on a book called Conversations with Famous
People. In the book, Ive got 35 conversations with writers,
actors, actresses, politicians, and singers like Joan Baez, in which
I sat down and talked to them about stuttering. And every chapter
reveals something new about me and how stuttering impacted my life.
Im going to meet with the people at the Stuttering Foundation
of America in a couple of weeks. Theyre going to help me find
Docter: Sounds very comprehensive and fascinating. Can you share
one or two of the stories which youre including?
Williams: One of the most interesting people I interviewed was the
late actor Anthony Quinn. He stuttered when he was a young man. This
was in the 80s. He was on Broadway, and he was doing the play
Zorba. I knew back then I wanted to write a book about stuttering.
I had been trying to meet with him. I sent him samples of my writing.
One day I went up to New York and I dropped a letter off at the theater
where the play Zorba was taking place. Two or three days later I got
a call from Anthony Quinn. He told me he had read my materials and
would be interested in talking to me about how stuttering affected
his life, but he said Id have to come up to New York. At that
time, I was working in Washington DC, so I went up and met him at
an Italian restaurant two blocks from St. Patricks cathedral
in New York. We sat down and we had a three-and-a-half-hour lunch.
Docter: Wow! Im sure you were very pleased. So what did you
talk about for three-and-a-half hours?
Williams: We just talked about his experiences, about my experiences.
He got into acting after he went to architectural school; Frank Lloyd
Wright was his teacher. And Frank Lloyd Wright encouraged Anthony
Quinn to get into acting to help him with his stuttering and thought
that would make him a better sales person. So he got into acting,
and acting started paying him more money than being a student of Frank
Lloyd Wrights, so he left architecture and went into acting
Docter: Such a fascinating historical tidbit...
Williams: A couple of other people I interview in the book are the
actor Pierce Brosnan and the actor who played Superman, Christopher
Reeve. Oh, I have another good story. This was when I was writing
for Business Week. Stephen King was a fan of my column, which
I didnt know.
Docter: That had to be an astonishing discovery. What an honor
for a writer.
Williams: He had been hit by a car and was starting to undergo a number
of operations, and I got a letter from him, through Business Week,
in which he asked me if I would pick out my five most interesting
columns, the five articles that I thought were my best, and if I would
send them to him, because he wanted to be inspired before and after
his operation, and he thought my writings could do that for him.
Williams: And I said, Great! So I did that. And he actually
sent me another message asking me for those articles, and I framed
Docter: You have so many great stories. I cant wait to pick
up your book.
Williams: I have a story about Bill Gates you might be interested
in. In the 90s, Bill Gates spoke at the Federal Office Systems
Expo (FOSE) in Washington DC. This expo is a three-day conference
in which manufacturers show their technology off to the federal government.
After Bill Gates gave his speech, he came off the stage, and one of
the FOSE founders and a friend of mine, Izzie Feldman, introduced
me to Bill Gates. Izzie said to him, This man knows more about
the field of technology benefiting people with disabilities than anybody
I know. And Gates looked at me and immediately asked somebody
to find a vacant room. Bill Gates and I went in there and he asked
me to give him some background on myself. I did, and then he said,
I have two questions for you. Is there a market to develop technology
for people with disabilities and how large is it? I spent maybe
15 minutes talking to him about it, and then we left the room. It
was shortly after that the Gates began to get Microsoft into the accessibility
field in a very big way. To my knowledge today, Microsoft has more
people working on the accessibility area in the field of assistive
technology than any company I know......
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