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John Kemp was sure he could make it to the big leagues. Like many 10-year-old boys growing up in North Dakota, he thought that hard work and practice would lead him to his dream of becoming a professional baseball player. And Kemp’s father let him dream that he would one day wear a Milwaukee Braves jersey. Why couldn’t the boy born without arms below his elbows and legs below his knees play professional baseball? Four decades later, the 54-year-old partner at health care firm Powers Pyles Sutter & Verville sits in his modest downtown office, smiling while recalling his young ambitions. He never made the majors — and his favorite team moved to Atlanta — but he’s been one of the biggest players in advocacy for the disabled for the past 30 years. The Department of Health and Human Services recently honored Kemp for his work on behalf of the disabled as part of the New Freedom Initiative, launched by President George W. Bush in February 2001 to promote full participation of the disabled in all aspects of society. But the award is just the latest in a succession of accolades. Now a lobbyist and consultant working to send the message that the disabled are, as he puts it, “entitled to a basic quality of life,” Kemp was one of the nation’s first, and best-known, disabilities rights advocates. “He’s got an infectious sense of mission and cause,” says Stephen Bennett, president of United Cerebral Palsy. Kemp, he adds, is a “hero” in the disabilities rights community. Kemp was born in Waterloo, Iowa, in 1949 without hands and feet, for reasons that were never fully understood. He started wearing prostheses when he was 2 years old — first arms, and then legs the following year. He doesn’t remember learning how to walk, but knows his father made him try over and over until he could balance on his own. Kemp learned to write with his clamp-like prostheses by trial and error. His kindergarten teacher taped yellow-lined paper to his desk, and he practiced until he got it right. His mother died when he was only 15 months old. Kemp’s father, a civil engineer, raised Kemp and his two sisters alone. Kemp says he has been lucky. “I was fortunate to have a family who believed I could do anything,” he says. Today, Kemp is a law firm partner, the latest achievement in a career that has included top management positions at several associations for people with disabilities, including the National Easter Seals Society, United Cerebral Palsy, and the American Association of People With Disabilities, which he co-founded in 1995. He can type about 30 words per minute without errors, and though his gait lumbers a bit, he has little trouble getting around. A three-wheeled scooter takes him on longer trips, like the one between his office at 19th and I streets and the West End condo he shares with his wife, Sameta Kemp, the vice president of development and marketing for the Lupus Foundation of America. “He’s never, ever asked for anything special,” says longtime friend Samuel Schuetz, president of Morrill & Janes Bank & Trust in Hiawatha, Kan. “All John wants and really demands of people is that they treat him just like anyone else.” Kemp adopted this attitude when he was young. His father insisted he attend “regular” schools and be treated the same as his classmates. And when his frustration and anger from childish teasing at school finally broke him, his father had wise words. Kemp recalls them: ” ‘Who has the handicap here, John?’ ” his father asked. ” ‘Aren’t they they ones who have the problem?’ “ The boy took those words to heart, and started his advocacy career at age 10 as a poster child for Easter Seals. He gave speeches for the organization throughout his undergraduate years studying history at Georgetown University. But it wasn’t until after a summer internship in the general counsel’s office of the U.S. Small Business Administration in Kansas City, Kan., that Kemp decided he wanted to be a lawyer. “I was an advocate anyway, and disability was my passion,” Kemp says. He went straight to Washburn University School of Law in Topeka. At the time, a legal practice based on disability issues was “unheard of,” Kemp says, so his first job out of law school in 1974 was in the Environmental Protection Agency’s enforcement division. After a short stint there, he took a job as a consumer advocate at Easter Seals. Kemp saw an opportunity to pursue his passion after the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the first major piece of legislation protecting the rights of the disabled. In 1977, Kemp, then 28, and fellow Washburn graduate Robert Young took a gamble and started their own Overland Park, Kan.-based consulting firm, Kemp & Young, to advise companies on compliance with the new law. Their instincts proved correct. The firm, Kemp says, was one of the first to provide training and advice to companies on the Rehabilitation Act, which protects the disabled against discrimination by federal employers and agencies, recipients of federal funds, and businesses with federal contracts. Because the law was new, the young lawyers had to invent fictional scenarios for the instructional case studies they wrote. They even created a Monopoly-like board game to help train their clients. “We were ahead of our time,” Kemp says. Although the small firm was successful, the two lawyers parted ways in the early 1980s. Kemp had decided it was time to foray into more direct advocacy and took a job in senior management at Easter Seals, beginning about 20 years of leading nonprofit organizations for the disabled. After the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, things heated up for Kemp. He was inducted into the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans in 1991, co-founded the American Association of People With Disabilities in 1995, and was appointed to serve on the National Council on Disability by then-President Bill Clinton in 1995 at the recommendation of friend and then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas. At the height of the Internet boom in 2000, Kemp went to work for a dot-com. He took on management of HalfthePlanet.com, a clearinghouse of information and resources for the disabled and their friends and families. The venture only lasted one “wild” year, Kemp says. After the market crashed, the site’s venture capitalists decided to pull out, but donated their initial investment to start the HalfthePlanet Foundation, which Kemp now heads. But when the market crash sent Kemp looking for a new job, Powers Pyles was at the top of his list. His relationship with the firm began in 1990 when he first met partner Peter Thomas as he was leaving a restaurant. Thomas, who lost both of his legs in a childhood car accident, says it was immediately apparent they had a lot in common. They introduced themselves at the same time and “became fast friends,” Thomas says. And they helped each other professionally as well. When Kemp needed a lawyer to incorporate the new American Association of People With Disabilities, he called Thomas. When he needed office space to run the HalfthePlanet.com site, he was able to lease space from Powers Pyles. And when Kemp decided to take a stab at law firm life, working with Thomas at Powers Pyles seemed like “the right place to be,” Kemp says. His experience proved a good fit with Thomas’ established disabilities lobbying practice. Kemp brought substantial experience as a manager of nonprofit organizations, and what Powers Pyle managing partner Robert Saner II calls a “client’s perspective,” to the practice. But what Kemp didn’t have was a book of business. “People asked hard questions about that when we first brought John in,” says Saner. But the 28-lawyer firm decided Kemp was worth the risk, and Saner says they haven’t been disappointed. “Find me an employer who wouldn’t want to hire John Kemp,” he says. “He’s just an exceptional person.” And, he says, an exceptional lawyer, adding that Kemp and Thomas have supplemented the firm’s health care practice with their disability practice. “He’s brought a wealth of context to our firm,” Saner says.”Whatever lack of experience he may have had in the day-to-day practice of law was aptly offset.” Today, their clients include such companies as the Microsoft Corp. and the Hewlett-Packard Development Co., which seek Kemp’s advice not just on compliance, but also on how to tap the market of the millions of Americans with disabilities. “So often the counsel that corporations receive is ‘What is the minimum amount I have to do in order to comply with federal law?’ ” Thomas says. That’s shifted to ” ‘How do I most effectively appeal to the 56 million consumers in this country who have a disability?’ “ Microsoft, for example, has been working to make the Windows operating system more user-friendly for disabled users, adding features like embedded voice-recognition and developing more short-cut commands to minimize key strokes. Kemp is a consultant for Microsoft’s accessible technology group, advising them on issues in Congress that may affect their work, but also on how to deal with the disabled community. “The great thing about working with John is that he understands industry, the government, and consumers,” says Laura Ruby, regulatory and industry affairs manager for Microsoft’s accessible technology group. “He knows how to ensure that all three constituencies get what they need.” Kemp says he is encouraged by the changes he’s seen over his lifetime, notably the passage of major laws protecting and accommodating the disabled. But changes in society, he says, have been the most profound. No longer seen as “charity cases” in the eyes of most Americans, the disabled are now regarded as full human beings entitled to the same rights and protections as everyone else, Kemp says. The disabled are “arriving in the consciousness of America,” he says. “I don’t think there has been a 50-year period in this country that has seen so much change for people with disabilities.” He adds, “We’re in a revolution now that most people do not know is going on.” Kemp speaks excitedly about technology’s potential to improve the quality of life for disabled people. For example, a book can be translated into Braille and read on a refreshable Braille display, an electronic monitor that displays Braille, line by line. In the near future, Kemp says, most children’s textbooks will be available in this format, and blind children could be free of large and unwieldy volumes of traditional Braille books. “This is fun stuff,” says Kemp. “It’s not just ‘Hey, is there a ramp to the building?’ anymore.” In addition to his full-time law practice, Kemp manages three nonprofit organizations: the Disability Service Providers of America, the HalfthePlanet Foundation, and The Abilities Fund, which encourages self-employment and entrepreneurship for people with disabilities. Kemp is a sought-after public speaker, giving between 30 and 40 speeches, most of them paid, each year. Those closest to him say his skills as a communicator are unmatched. “He’s just an outstanding spokesman for any cause,” says Schuetz, who met Kemp in law school. “When he gets started, everybody listens.” And they usually laugh, too. Kemp is known for his sense of humor, and rarely will one of his public speeches each year pass without a joke or two. He often begins a speech by gently mocking the notion of political correctness, welcoming the umpteen “categories” of people in audience — for example, “the homeboys, the homeless, the temporarily housed at home, and, god save us, the permanently housed at home.” Kemp’s former boss, Easter Seals President James Williams, says Kemp’s sense of humor was indispensible in diffusing tension at contentious staff meetings at the national organization that offers a variety of services to people with disabilities. “There’s a knack in being able to do that,” says Williams. “John is a guy who combines a very sharp wit and keen intellect with a passion for what he does.” Kemp’s humor and charisma have also helped him through his own tough times — the times when, as he says, he’s been “jolted into remembering I’m not always regarded as an equal.” But Williams says Kemp inspires disabled people, from those trying to have successful careers to those who struggle just to fit in. “He is, in essence, saying to anyone who he interacts with, ‘You can do anything you want to do,’ ” he says. “ It’s a great thing to see.” And while his friends describe him as relentlessly positive, Kemp tepidly acknowledges that there are daily struggles. “I gloss over a lot of it to get through my day,” he says. And he works to knock down the institutional and societal barriers that hinder the disabled. “Sometimes we have to elbow our way in,” he says. “This is a long process.”

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