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Disability Action Center NW

62 Years in a Wheelchair Just Part of Judy’s Life

IOWA CITY — In March of 1978, life kind of overwhelmed Judy Hoit.

She had two young boys, 10 and 12, who required a lot of her time.

Her rocky marriage would soon end in divorce after her husband quit school in Des Moines.

She lost her job because she no longer had a ride to work.

Then a caller had the nerve to ask if she’d be interested in working at the University of Iowa.

“Someone in Iowa City,” Judy recalls, “wanted a secretary with a visible disability.”

Judy was 32. She lived in Guthrie Center. She had been in a wheelchair since polio struck at age 4.

“I didn’t want a job just because somebody was interested in somebody with a disability,” she says.

But Bill Shanhouse, the vice president of administrative services, didn’t give up. He was in charge of handicapped services at the university. He wanted Judy because he knew she could handle being in the front lines. She’d done well for three years at Easter Seals.

Finally, after a visit, Judy agreed. It was the start of a 25-year career that took her to staff development, staff benefits, the Iowa Memorial Union and the hospital school, now known as the center for disabilities and development. It certainly toughened her up for life as she worked with a sometimes crass public that needed an education.

Why, the questions Judy heard:

“What’s wrong with you?”

“Do they have all you patients working here?”

“It’s nice that the university hires people like you.”

She shakes her head.

“They were always shocked that I was married, that I had kids,” she says. “It’s never dull. Working with the public is a real eye-opener.

“Working,” she adds, “is probably the best thing I could have done.”

As Judy Herron, born in Coon Rapids, grew up in Guthrie Center, her mother preferred she stay home. Her father encouraged a career.

Three days after her fourth birthday, in 1949, a high fever and paralysis indicated Judy had polio. Her brother, Jerry, four years older, had it, too. But his immune system was strong enough to fight back, leaving him with a limp.

Judy would spend a year in a Des Moines hospital, travel to FDR’s treatment center in Warm Springs, Georgia, until she was 13, undergo numerous surgeries. Today, she wears a back brace and heavy metal braces on both legs. It takes her 10 minutes to remove them for bed each night.

“If I had anything,” Judy says, “I wish I had more arms.”

She doesn’t mean three or four arms; she means stronger arms to lift herself out of her wheelchair.

Judy gets along fine on her own, with visits from sons Darin and Daril who live in Iowa City. She’s to receive a new electric wheelchair to replaced the first powered one she reluctantly got in 2003.

“You feel like you’re giving up your independence,” Judy says. “The truth is, you have more independence with a power wheelchair.”

While Judy has never driven a car, she owns a lift-equipped van for others to drive and rode the Bionic Bus when she worked. She can ride her wheelchair around the neighborhood and to nearby Sycamore Mall in nice weather.

Always one to appreciate independence, Judy invented and patented the Pakkie, a sling used to transfer people with physical disabilities from a wheelchair to a seat, after she experienced the airline’s struggles to do so on a solo trip to South Africa. In 1992 she wrote and published her autobiography — “My World Has Access Now.” She was selected Handicapped Woman of Iowa in 1991 and Ms. Wheelchair Iowa in 1996, a program she now coordinates.

It’s not a beauty pageant, she says, but an opportunity to educate
the public and advocate for women who use wheelchairs. It’s a competition to help women see their potential and to share their accomplishments. It’s a program that continues today because Judy — in a wheelchair for nearly 62 years — exemplifies the charm, wisdom, inventiveness and determination of a woman in control of her own life.

Comments: (319) 398-8323;

Ms. Wheelchair Iowa

Any woman wishing to be considered for the Ms. Wheelchair Iowa competition can contact Judy Hoit in Iowa City at (319) 351-8375. The program is open to women ages 21 to 60 who use a wheelchair for 100 percent of their mobility. The winner, chosen on the basis of accomplishments, self-perception and meeting the challenges of personal growth, will represent Iowa in the national contest in Grand Rapids, Mich., in August. For more information visit The deadline to apply is Friday.