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Longtime AFLCMC civilian teaches others about disabilities

  • Published
  • By Allyson B. Crawford, AFLCMC Public Affairs

Each October, the U.S. marks National Disability Employment Awareness Month. The theme of this year's month is "America's Recovery: Powered by Inclusion." This piece is a special profile in honor of this initiative.
WRIGHT-PATTERSON AFB, Ohio (AFLCMC) - Knowledge Management Specialist James Terpenning - or “JT” to most coworkers - has a happy personality. Airmen assigned to AFLCMC headquarters at Wright-Patterson AFB (WPAFB) often meet Terpenning before any other coworkers. By nature of his IT work, Terpenning sets up individuals with the equipment they need to do their work. He helps newcomers to government work understand how to log-in to the network with a common access card (CAC) and ensures printers are mapped to the correct location. He zips down hallways finding the right cables and peripherals and he does all this and more while in a wheelchair.
Terpenning contracted polio shortly after birth. He was one of thousands of infants and children relocated during Operation Babylift, the mass evacuation of children from South Vietnam to America and other countries during April 1975. Terpenning was adopted several months later in New York.
Like Terpenning, his three other siblings were adopted. The siblings are Ann, Joseph - who was adopted from St. Vincent Hospital in New York like JT - and Connie. Straight from a movie plot, Connie was left in a basket on his parent’s doorstep.
During the 1970s, it was frowned upon by New York State to place more than one disabled child with a single family. When Joseph was born, a doctor told his biological parents “Your son has a disability. He is basically a vegetable and won’t live long.”
Joseph’s biological parents left him at the hospital. Ann was already volunteering at St. Vincent at a young age and she met Joseph and told her parents about him. They visited him and began the adoption paperwork. Despite the one-disabled child rule, the same nun who worked to place Joseph also made sure James was adopted by the Terpenning family. Wheelchair-bound Joseph now lives with JT and his family.
Terpenning says his mother always took care of others. He embodies that spirit today in many ways and uses his disability as a gift to teach young and old alike. While acknowledging progress can be slow, Terpenning says he is glad that attitudes about those with disabilities are finally changing in a positive way.
“When I was little, disability was frowned upon and people stared,” he says. “[People] didn’t know what to do and that they were ignorant about how to react to someone with a disability."
Terpenning recalls going shopping and kids would approach him and touch his wheelchair and ask questions. He was frustrated when parents would pull their children away.
“I would put them on the spot and tell them kids are intrigued and they want to learn,” Terpenning explains. “I’m seeing more people not shying away from someone who is disabled. I see people asking to help. I also see them say ‘Would you mind if I opened the door for you?’ There are some disabled guys that will say ‘Do NOT open that door for me!’ and they are rude to the able-bodied population. I remind them they need to be patient and teach them. It’s a two-way street. We all have to learn how to be with each other.”
Terpenning started explaining his disability to kids. “If you have a heart and the desire, you’re gonna go for it. The only way you’re gonna know that you can do it - or not do it - is to try it,” he would remind his young audiences.
While mostly in a wheelchair, Terpenning is far from sedentary. He has gone skydiving and rock climbing and plays competitive basketball and softball. He has medaled at the U.S. Paralympics in swimming. He plays with Columbus Pioneers Wheelchair softball and hopes to play in Japan next year on the USA team. He remains active coaching kids able-bodied sports.
In 2009, Terpenning and his family were featured on the television show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. WPAFB coworkers nominated Terpenning’s family for the show. A complete overhaul of the Beavercreek home meant more accessibility. During the show, Wittenberg University awarded full tuition scholarships to each of the four Terpenning children. Josselyn is the oldest and now a freshman at the school.
Terpenning studied human resources and graduated from Wright State University in December 1998 and began his civilian Air Force career the following summer. He knew he wanted to work for the military after spending his summers working for the Army at West Point. His path to Wright-Patterson was unconventional thanks to now-retired family friend who happened to be a colonel at the base. 
Terpenning was helping the colonel’s son set-up a computer for college. The colonel observed Terpenning’s careful work and created an IT position for him in August 1999. While at student at WSU, Terpenning worked for disability services. The colonel’s wife happened to work in the next office over. One day she introduced Terpenning to an intern named Shannon. The pair hit it off and have been married 22 years.
The pandemic has changed the way all of us work. Now, Terpenning physically goes into the office one day a week. With severe back issues, working at home has proven to be a blessing. At home, Terpenning can usually find a more comfortable position while still supporting his customers on base. Even with this positive change for his health, Terpenning still loves being around his coworkers.   
“I do miss talking to people personally and shooting the breeze and having fun,” exclaims Terpenning.

Definition of abelism from Merriam-Webster discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities

Definition of able-bodied from Merriam-Webster  fit, strong, and healthy; not physically disabled


Learn more about National Disability Employment Awareness Month at