Susan O'Hara

Who was Susan O'Hara?

Born in 1938, Susan O’Hara described her childhood as a “classic, middle-class upbringing in the fifties,” in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. Her father worked as a mechanical engineer and her mother stayed home to raise her and her four younger siblings. But Susan’s family had something else in common with hundreds of thousands of other families--a close encounter with the polio virus. In 1955, Susan contracted polio. At first her family thought it might be the flu, but as her condition worsened she found herself in the hospital, where she stayed for five months. When she finally returned home, Susan’s body was markedly different than it had been before her illness. For a while, she accepted the regimen of physical therapy prescribed for her and tens of thousands of other polio survivors at the time: hot packs, stretching, standing boards, corsets, braces, and crutches, all of which aimed to get polio survivors back on their feet and walking. After three years, however, Susan decided to stop going to outpatient therapy. “I made a conscious decision that I was not going to attempt to walk,” she remembered. “It was dangerous to walk with all that stuff tied to me, and if anybody even looked at me funny I would tip over and I could break many bones. So against some of my parents’ friends’ wishes who made themselves quite clear, I decided that that wasn’t going to be something I was going to do. I didn’t have to look on it as giving up; I was just going to be mobile in a different way.”

Life Beyond Polio

O’Hara’s acceptance of her post-polio difference was the beginning of her life as disability rights advocate and activist. In 1971, O’Hara moved to California to teach highschool. Soon after moving out there, however, she began taking classes at UC Berkeley and became involved with the disabled students there. In 1975 she was appointed the coordinator of the campus residence program for disabled students, ending the era when disabled students at the University had lived in the campus hospital. In 1988, she became the director of the Disabled Students’ Program and in her retirement worked to establish Bancroft Library’s oral history collection on disability rights and the Independent Living Movement.

Epidemics and their Ripple Effects

As O’Hara’s story helps illustrate, epidemic diseases have effects that go beyond stories of death or recovery. People don’t just die or “get better,” instead, lives and societies change. Epidemics change people’s bodies and minds, they reshape families, they restructure communities, and, sometimes, they lead to changes so deep that they redefine the human experience, entirely. Polio did just that, and we look forward to using stories from the past and the present to explore the full impact, potential, and possibilities posed by the current COVID-19 pandemic.

There is more to recovery than negative blood tests; the relationship between disability, health and illness is complex and nuanced, and there is hope and possibility even when things seem to be at their bleakest. This project seeks to understand how paying attention to stories of disability, daily life, and change during pandemics, past and present, can help us imagine what it means to build a future beyond cure, beyond recovery--Beyond Better.