The Faces Behind the Disability Rights Movement

 As I thought about what to write about this month, I came up with the idea of bringing attention to the many African Americans who fought hard to open doors that would otherwise have remained closed for them and the many that came after them. Many names and faces are known and recognized during Black History Month. We grew up reading and learning about them in school, and at home, we watched their stories portrayed in movies and in books. Many of those most recognized names have been celebrated and discussed year after year, but other very important names are not well known, even though they have left a big mark and paved the way for many in our communities. These amazing people took it upon themselves to fight the good fight, their efforts led to life-changing laws that today help many throughout the country. The folks I am referring to are way too often forgotten and today I wanted to shed light on some of those amazing human beings who fought for the rights that many in the disability community have today. 

Today I would like to introduce you to some of those names who we should all know, the first is Dr. Sylvia Walker.

Dr. Walker was born in New York City on July 18th, 1937, born blind, and with that, the stigma that her disability would impair her from doing great things. Dr. Walker never let her blindness stop her, she pursued an education and advocated for minorities such as herself. After many years of higher education and four degrees, Dr. Walker became an assistant professor at the School of Education at Howard University. After a short time, she became a full-time professor and began to do more work in regard to the lack of accessibility for all people with disabilities, especially those who were also minorities. She was the founder of the Center for the Study of Handicapped Children and Youth in 1975; which today is known as the Howard University Center for Disability and Socioeconomic Policy Studies. Dr. Walker served as the director for the remainder of her life, while in this charge she fought very hard to make sure that not just her community received the help they needed, she also advocated so that Hispanics, American Indians, and Asians had equal access to the services they needed.  Her many papers, published articles, and research helped lead the way to legislation that helped create the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) along with many other laws to protect the rights of those living with a disability. President Clinton appointed Dr. Walker to vice chair President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities in 1994.  The year after she founded the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) with the help of other activists. All her efforts and advocacy led to her being recognized and honored with the NAACP “Keeper of the Flame” Award in 2000. Dr. Sylvia Walker died on February 6th, 2004 but her legacy will forever touch the lives of many and continue to help inspire others to Keep the Flame alive.

Thurgood Marshall was born June 2nd, 1908 in Baltimore, Maryland. His name at birth was Thoroughgood Marshall, but at the young age of six and after much teasing at school, he decided to legally change his name to Thurgood Marshall. If this did not show those around him just what a remarkable and determined man he would grow up to be, it was because they were not paying close attention. As a young man the person Marshall most looked up to and who had a big impact on his life was his father, later on in life, he said this about his father; “he never told me to become a lawyer, he turned me into one.” Many could say that his introduction to law came in High School, he pulled a prank for which he was caught, and as punishment the school principal made him read the U.S. Constitution. This set off what would be the start of his legacy, the start of his pursuit of justice. He particularly liked the document and even memorized part of it. He took a lot of interest in Article III and in the Bill of Rights. Article III establishes the judicial branch of the government and the Bill of Rights lists the rights that all American citizens were supposed to have. At this time, Jim Crow laws still plagued much of the country, which was the reason why many African Americans were not able to enjoy these so-called “rights for all” that the Bill of Rights listed. 

As an adult, Marshall attended the all-black Lincoln University (the oldest African American institution of higher education in the country) and after being rejected from the University of Maryland School of Law because of his race, he went on to attend law school at Howard University where he graduated first in his class. Here is where he met Charles Hamilton Houston, who was the vice-dean of the law school. Houston directed the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund to which Marshall was his right-hand man. It was during this time that Marshall saw firsthand that the ruling in Plessy v Furgeson was more than flawed, for “separate” could never be “equal”. Marshall felt that the only way for African Americans or anyone really, to succeed was to be able to receive an education. But at this time the discrepancy between the education that whites received vs the education being offered to African Americans was visibly not equal by any means. Together with Houston, Marshall argued many cases like Murray v Maryland (1936), and Missouri ex rel Gaines v Canada (1938). In 1938 when Houston returned to private practice, Marshall took over the NAACP Legal Defense for Education Fund and argued Sweat v Painted (1950) and in that same year McLaurin v Oklahoma Board of Regents of Higher Education. Winning these cases set precedents that helped chip away at Jim Crow laws, which in 1954 led to the victorious ruling of Brown v Board of Education which ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional. This victory, which set a precedent for other cases to come, was used to support the argument that children with disabilities deserve the right to receive free public education. The 1972 case, Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children (PARC) v Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, argued that just like in the Brown case, children with disabilities too, deserve the right to an education free from discrimination. The families in this lawsuit all had children who were denied free public education because they had intellectual disabilities. Their success in court, followed by 27 other federal court decisions, led to the creation of FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education) and the special education law known as EAHCA (Education for All Handicapped Children) being signed into law in 1975 by President Gerald Ford. The name of this law was changed to IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) in 1990 to be more inclusive as it put the person first rather than the disability. 

In 1967 after many years of working closely and within reach of the Supreme Court, President Johnson appointed him to the U.S. Supreme Court which made him the first African American to take such a role, he remained Justice Marshall until 1991. Marshall passed away in 1993, and by this time he had earned the nickname “Mr. Civil Rights.” 

Brad Lomax is another name we should all be familiar with, born September 13, 1950. He was a Civil Rights leader, a disability rights activist, and a Black Panther Party member. At the age of thirteen, a visit to his grandmother in Alabama could change his life and the way he saw it. Alabama in the 1960s was the epicenter of the civil rights movement, it was during his visit that Lomax saw firsthand what segregation was, he saw signs that designated public spaces for “whites ONLY” and others for Black people. In the 1960s he joined the Black Panther Party as he wanted to be a part of the revolution, a revolution he hoped would lead the way to equal rights, end police brutality and poverty, and pave the way to a better life for African Americans. After graduating High School in 1968, Lomax entertained the thought of joining the Military, but seeing how black soldiers were bearing the most burden, he instead decided to join Howard University in Washington D.C. That same year Lomax started to have difficulties walking, and his Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis came soon after. Life with Multiple Sclerosis made life physically challenging, he quickly relied on a wheelchair to get around which opened his eyes to a different type of discrimination. The very object that was supposed to give him a sense of independence was also an obstacle to entering most buildings as most establishments did not have wheelchair ramps. He quickly realized that people with disabilities were denied basic rights such as; education, access to public facilities, and help to find accessible housing and jobs. Lomax had to face the fact that there were little to no services to help those with disabilities have access to the most basic needs, especially if they were Black. When he moved to Oakland California he learned about the Center for Independent Living, an organization started by and for people with disabilities.  This organization was instrumental in the fight for curb cuts for wheelchairs at street corners in San Francisco and Berkeley. In 1975 he approached Ed Roberts, who at the time was the director, and proposed that they and the BPP (Black Panther Party)  join forces to offer assistance to those living with disabilities in the predominantly Black community of East Oakland, CA. Lomax knew how detrimental this help was as he first hand, quickly learned the many difficulties he faced being wheelchair-bound. Getting around using public transportation was a big problem as he needed to be lifted onto buses, something he was not able to do all on his own, which meant relying on others for assistance. His lived experiences and that of others living with disabilities sparked his passion to join the disability rights movement which two years later, led to Lomax leading the 504 sit-ins, in San Francisco California in 1977. This sit-in took place in San Francisco’s federal office building, on the fourth floor which housed the offices of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. The purpose of the sit-in was to urge the government to implement Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Lomax and his colleagues camped out for three long weeks, the government’s way of trying to deter them away was shutting down the water supply and phone lines, which did nothing to stop their sit-in or kill their spirit. They instead thought of ways to make it work, with the help of the BPP (Black Panther Party) who mobilized to deliver food, water, and essentials to protesters, their sit-in was able to continue. The BPP also covered Lomax’s travel expenses so he could travel to Washington D.C. to put pressure on the government. Section 504 was signed into law on April 28th of 1977. While the 504 regulations only held weight when it came to Federally funded programs, it helped push the government towards positive changes and laid the groundwork for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that was passed in 1990.

Lomax’s life was cut short at the young age of 33, he passed away on August 8th of 1984. His legacy and advocacy work will live on forever as he made a huge impact on those in the disability community, he paved the way for those who came after him to keep fighting for equality, inclusion, and access to accommodations that can transform the lives of those living with a disability. 

Lois Curtis was born July 14th, 1967 in Atlanta Georgia. She was a disability activist and artist who at age 27, became the lead plaintiff in Olmstead v L.C. a supreme court case that started in 1995 and fought for the right to live independently for those with disabilities. The Supreme Court ruled in 1999, that housing those with disabilities in mental institutions was discriminatory under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Curtis knew very well what being separated from her family was like, as she was involuntarily moved from one mental institution to another due to her cognitive and developmental disabilities. Due to her special needs, she would wander away from home which often led to missing person calls to the police, her family had difficulties caring for her as they did not know how to. Before the age of twelve, she was a part-time patient at Georgia Regional Hospital, in and out of their child and adolescent mental health unit, where she was often kept sedated. For almost twenty years she was confined to mental institutions, all those years she wished she could be in a better living space, with others in her community. This lawsuit changed the way the state provided disability services as it went from a mostly institutional model to a more community-based one. With the help of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, she filed a lawsuit against Tommy Olmstead who was the commissioner of Human Services in Georgia. The lawsuit demanded that Curtis be transferred to more humane, loving living conditions such as a group home. In a 6-3 decision, Justice Ruth Vader Ginsburg said, “confinement in an institution severely diminishes the everyday life activities of individuals, including family relations, social contacts, work options, economic independence, educational advancement, and cultural enrichment.” The court ordered state and local governments to make “reasonable accommodations” and provide more community support for those living with disabilities.  A lawyer representing Adapt, a national organization of people with disabilities, called the Olmstead ruling “the Brown v Board of Education for disability rights”. Ten years after the ruling, Curtis was finally able to move into her own apartment. She was a very talented artist who, once given the opportunity, was able to show what she was capable of, her artwork was exhibited in many Georgia galleries. Her artwork, her tireless advocacy, and her fight for the rights of people with disabilities opened the door for her to be able to present one of her paintings to President Barack Obama on June 20th, 2011.

I could write for days and weeks on end about all the amazing people that have paved the way for my son and many others living with disabilities like him, but since I cannot I will leave you with these names who are worthy of mention. Jonnie Lacy helped fund the Berkeley Center for Independent Living in 1981. Fannie Lue Hamer, a women’s rights, civil rights, workers’ rights, and voting rights activist. Who amongst many things, helped advocate for Federal funding for Head Start programs that are still in existence today. She was disabled and lived with the long-term effects of contracting polio as a child. She also was the victim of sterilization during surgery without her consent, and while incarcerated in Mississippi for attempting to vote, she became physically disabled as well, due to the violence she was subjected to during her incarceration. Donald Galloway was a supporter of disabled people’s rights and fought for the inclusion of people of color in the disability rights movement. Galloway was left blind after an accident which did not stop him from earning his Master’s Degree in Social Work. He served on many committees before running the Center for Independent Living in Washington D.C. When he was turned away from jury service at a D.C. Superior Court, which was discrimination, he sued the district and won. A district judge ruled in his favor stating that automatically turning someone away from jury service was unconstitutional. Chuck Jackson joined forces with Lomax to make 504 a reality. Bessie Blount helped develop one of the first assistive technology devices to help those with disabilities who could not feed themselves; she paved the way for others to think outside the box and develop more assistive devices for those with disabilities. Harriet Tubman is well known in history for leading hundreds of enslaved people to escape slavery in the South. As a teenager, she was struck with a 2lb weight which left her with what back then she referred to as “sleeping spells”, but truly, what many Black Historians believed she suffered from was Epileptic seizures, a symptom of traumatic brain injury from that attack.  Joyce Ardell Jackson also participated in the 504 sit-in. Jazzie Collins was an openly HIV-positive activist, leader, and organizer, who fought for LGBTQ+, elders, people with disabilities, tenants, and labor rights. Audre Lorde is self-described as a Black, Feminist, Lesbian, Mother, Warrior, and Poet. She wrote Sister Outsider, The Cancer Journals, and the Black Unicorn amongst others which talk more about her lived experiences. Claudia Gordon is the first Black Deaf lawyer in the United States. She is also the former Senior Policy Advisor for the Department of Homeland Security, former vice president of the National Black Deaf Advocates, and has served as Public Engagement Advisor at the White House.  Pat Parker is a Black, Lesbian, feminist, poet, and activist. She was a member of the Black Panther Party and the Women’s Press Collective; she was also involved in advocacy for domestic violence victims, the LGBTQ+ community, and for people of color. 

There are so many more names I wish I could mention, but for now, I hope the names and faces in this piece will become household names for you, from now on. As an immigrant, mother of a child with autism, a member of the LGBTQ+ community, a daughter, sister, writer, a woman, I am honored to be able to write a piece that talks about the many African American Heroes who made it possible for my son, my daughter and myself, to have the rights we have today. I wanted to recognize their work and the mark they have left in our lives and the many others who live with a disability.