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Disabilities Rights Advocate John Lancaster Receives Clarkson University Honorary Degree

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John Lancaster, a civil rights attorney and disabilities rights advocate and retired executive director of the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL), received an honorary doctor of science degree at Clarkson University's 118th Commencement today.

John LancasterThe degree was awarded for his “for his leadership and resolute commitment to social justice and the advancement of human and civil rights for people with disabilities throughout the world and his involvement in crafting U.S. and international disability law and policy; and for his role as a champion and advocate for the full integration and participation of people with disabilities in society.”

In addressing the Class of 2011, Lancaster said, "One night, in the midst of chaos, a single AK-47 round pierced my lungs and hit my spinal column. Life had thrown me one big curve ball... an unalterable change, and put in front of me seemingly endless barriers I would not be able to overcome.

“... With this [family] support, the backing of our U.S. Veterans Administration, a law degree at Notre Dame, and my wife Christine, I began to realize that my past does not own me and that I need not be... defined by things that happened more than a decade before. Instead, I realized that the past is of little consequence and really has little bearing, if any, on what may or may not happen tomorrow.

“What is useful about the past is the lessons, the skills and the tools it provides you to create that which has not yet happened. I used this realization to build a career around working for the civil and human rights of disabled veterans and people with disabilities. I learned to live in the present and not the past. I learned not to let misfortunes and personal failures define my future or to rest on the laurels of success and accomplishment...

“We do not even have control or power over the present; we can only recognize the opportunity that this moment presents. …So enjoy the moment, relish it, and stand in it armed with your accomplishments, your knowledge, your skills, your history, your Clarkson education. Stand in it with an open mind, courage, foresight and determination to create the next moment, the next present, the next future, and ultimately the next edition of history.”

The National Council on Independent Living (NCIL), which represents disability grassroots organizations run by and for people with disabilities, advances the independent living philosophy and advocates for the full integration and participation of people with disabilities in society.

Lancaster has long been active in the development of the human and civil rights of people with disabilities throughout the world. He served as a representative for disability employment policy in discussions between the European Union and the United States under the New Trans-Atlantic Agenda.

From 2000-2004, he served as a policy advisor to the Vietnamese government and the U.S. Agency for International Development in developing disability law, policy and programs in Vietnam. He serves on the board of the United States International Council on Disabilities and assists in advocating for the ratification and implementation of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Lancaster currently serves as the treasurer and member of the board of trustees for Handicap International Federation (HI), an organization that works to improve the rights and conditions of people living in disabling situations in post-conflict, post-disaster and low-income countries around the world.

A native of Hamburg, N.Y., Lancaster graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1967 with a B.A. in the general program of liberal studies. As a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps, he commanded an infantry platoon in combat during the Vietnam War, earning a Purple Heart and Bronze Star in 1968. Following military service, he returned to the University of Notre Dame for a law degree. 

Since 1974, he has worked as a civil rights attorney on issues related to the integration and empowerment of people with disabilities. He has served in government from 1981-87 for Governor Harry Hughes of Maryland as the director of the Office for Individuals with Disabilities and again from 1991-2000 with the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities. From 1995-2000, he distinguished himself in the Clinton Administration in the formulation of disability employment policy as the President’s Committee’s executive director.

Lancaster was recently nominated by President Barack Obama for the board of directors of the United States Institute of Peace. Confirmation of his nomination is pending in the United States Senate.

Clarkson University launches leaders into the global economy. One in six alumni already leads as a CEO, VP or equivalent senior executive of a company. Located just outside the Adirondack Park in Potsdam, N.Y., Clarkson is a nationally recognized research university for undergraduates with select graduate programs in signature areas of academic excellence directed toward the world’s pressing issues. Through 50 rigorous programs of study in engineering, business, arts, sciences and health sciences, the entire learning-living community spans boundaries across disciplines, nations and cultures to build powers of observation, challenge the status quo, and connect discovery and engineering innovation with enterprise.

[News directors and editors: For more information, contact Annie Harrison, Director of Media Relations, at 315-268-6764 or]

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