Dr. James R. Harding II, a recognized disability expert and a passionate consumer advocate, grew his vast expertise in spinal cord injury (SCI) from his personal journey of challenges and triumphs as both an advocate and an individual living with SCI. A two-time quadriplegic, he was first injured in 1983, followed by a second injury in 1998, which resulted in him becoming more paralyzed. Every aspect of his and his family’s lives is affected by SCI. Dr. Harding stated that “Often, those around me will jokingly say they are paralyzed as well, meaning there are many things that we can do and cannot do as individuals and families due to a SCI.” Daily activities are plagued by concerns about accessibility, emergency preparedness, and safety. Despite life with a SCI being a full time job of its own, Dr. Harding excels in many fields: he is a professor, consultant, speaker, advocate, author, volunteer, sports fan, traveler, and more. In his own words, “life is too short to be unengaged.”
Despite the many challenges, Dr. Harding became an advocate early on, choosing to use his unique experience to advocate for the disabled community. The first student to attend Western Kentucky University with a major disability, he served as a subject for dorm room accessibility testing in order to develop reasonable accommodations. From co-founding a student organization, Students with Alternative Needs, at the University of West Florida to serving as a seven-time Florida Gubernatorial appointee, he has never stopped advocating for the SCI community. His efforts have even affected national policy, as he served as a two-time Presidential appointee. Through these efforts, Dr. Harding influenced the implementation and enforcement of both state and federal laws related to individuals with disabilities. For over 37 years, Dr.Harding has made it his mission to empower people with disabilities, seniors, and those with special needs. His work has reached a diverse audience and he continues to serve as an impactful influencer today by offering his honest and insightful narrative.
Dr. Harding makes significant contributions to public policy and has a successful record of advocating for issues at the national, state, and local levels. His work spans the needs of the SCI community, addressing issues such as transportation, education, employment, independence, and more. He personally helped shape numerous pieces of legislation affecting the independence and self-sufficiency of individuals with disabilities, including a state law enabling people with disabilities to receive refueling assistance at gas stations. In addition, his work with The Florida Network on Disability focuses on ensuring financial independence for individuals with SCI and he helped create the James Patrick Memorial Program, which enables individuals with disabilities who need personal care assistance to gain employment. Dr. Harding secured hundreds of millions of dollars for transportation, job development, and recreational opportunities. His many accomplishments also include his ongoing work on Rish Park, a 98-acre beach front park and event space in Port St. Joe, Florida that is barrier-free.
Dr. Harding first encountered the Spinal Cord Injury Research Program (SCIRP) through a conversation with Dr. Rory Cooper, a Distinguished Professor of Rehabilitation Sciences and Technology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and in 2020 he applied his experience and expertise as a consumer peer reviewer. He recounts his time serving as a peer reviewer as interesting, challenging, and fulfilling, especially considering the effort and sincerity the scientific reviewers put into each grant’s discussion to ensure SCIRP resources would be impactful. He stated that the role of the consumer reviewer “brings a valuable perspective that the scientists would not otherwise have had. Our presence helped to ensure an authentic and realistic prioritization of ideas.” While impressed by the collaborative spirit of the review process, Dr. Harding believes the SCI community and SCIRP continues to face challenges, particularly with the long time between development and implementation of promising new therapies. He encourages the SCIRP to continue to include consumer reviewers and to incorporate the lived experience into the scientific review process, and he encourages other individuals with SCI to share their stories.
Last updated Thursday, March 25, 2021