John Williams — He’s the Man


A featured Business Week columnist and publisher of Assistive Technology News, journalist John M. Williams assures me he’s 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 King’s 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, ABILITY’s Kristal Docter discovers in this intimate interview what makes Williams an internationally-respected leader and advocate for the disability community.

Kristal Docter: Throughout your 40-year career of helping people in the disability community, what have been some of your most memorable moments?

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 won’t 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 Bush’s 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.

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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, I’ve been waiting for you. I’m 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 weren’t really interested in people with disabilities, and I was right.

Docter: Such a great story, but I’m sure you have more…

Williams: During Senator John McCain’s 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 what’s 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 wouldn’t budge at all.

Docter: But that’s how you get the story. Very impressive, Mr. Williams.

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, you’re a goddam good reporter. You got your story.” And I said, “I did. I got my story.”

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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 community?

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 I’ve 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 regular staff.

I’ll 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, I’d 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 won’t 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, I’d 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 can’t 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 that’s 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” wasn’t 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 I’ll use it again and again.” Now it’s become a standard term, and I could kick myself, because I could have copyrighted that, and if I had, I’d be a rich man right now.

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Docter: You were just being a creative wordsmith and journalist. Who knew we had to copyright our terminology? Back to overcoming your own disability—I read your article in which you compared yourself to the character in The King’s Speech, which I thought was quite brave. I’d really like to know how you’ve 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. “We’d like to hire you. You’re intellectually smart, but we won’t 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 couldn’t 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 you’re 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 don’t 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 don’t blink, then I know I’ve got my focus. If I have my focus, my speech is in most cases very fluent. However, I’ve had people who’ve 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, I’ve had men ask me if I was gay because I looked them straight in the eye. I said, “No, it’s just the way I have to produce fluency.”

Docter: (laughs) That’s interesting.

Williams: In the ‘80s, the Washington Post ran a number of stories by me, and that got me a lot of recognition. I’ve had more than 2,000 articles published in newspapers and magazines, online, and that makes me proud.

Docter: It should. Wow, that’s 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, who’s 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 weren’t 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 I’ve quoted or I’ve gotten information from to make sure that I’m 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 editor’s advice. The second thing is, write articles about your disability and how you deal with it. I’ve 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, I’ve never been afraid to do a story. I’ve 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: That’s a great feeling for a journalist.

Williams: For years I didn’t 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 person’s body language which will betray if they’re fighting something, if something makes them feel uncomfortable. You can’t see that on the phone.

Docter: I agree. It’s a shame I don’t get to meet you in person.

Williams: Oh, I’ve 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 didn’t 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 it’s 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?

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Williams: I’m working on a book called Conversations with Famous People. In the book, I’ve 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. I’m going to meet with the people at the Stuttering Foundation of America in a couple of weeks. They’re going to help me find a publisher.

Docter: Sounds very comprehensive and fascinating. Can you share one or two of the stories which you’re 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 I’d 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. Patrick’s cathedral in New York. We sat down and we had a three-and-a-half-hour lunch.

Docter: Wow! I’m 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 Wright’s, so he left architecture and went into acting full-time.

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 didn’t 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.

Docter: Wow!

Williams: And I said, “Great!” So I did that. And he actually sent me another message asking me for those articles, and I framed the letter.

Docter: You have so many great stories. I can’t 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…..

Articles in the Push Girls Issue; Senator Harkin — Working for Jobs; Ashley Fiolek — Switched at Conan; Paralympics — Better Than the Olympics?; ABILITY Award — Accenture and Prudential; DRLC — Affordable Health Care Act Benefits; Billie Jean King — Bouncing Back; Joint Replacement — Hard as a Bone; Tourette’s — A Friendly Fil; Geri Jewell — Paper or Plastic; China — Exposing the World; Push Girls — Living Large; Marathon — Horses Help Vets to Heal; John Williams — He’s the Man; ABILITY’s Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences…


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