The Intersection of Black and Disability History

“Yet when you look at Black history, there is an undeniable link to disability; some of our greatest Black heroes and heroines have been disabled.”

Ola Ojewumi

Throughout history Black people with disabilities have been living and thriving but not without challenges and not without a fight. It’s fitting that every single time these men and women rose to that challenge and decided to fight not only for their own wellbeing but for the wellbeing and rights of others. For this year’s Black History Month we want to highlight men and women who have inspired us by living boundlessly and stretching the limits of what is possible in our society.

The Black Panther Party

Photo of edition of the Black Panther Party newspaper describing the 504 protests at the San Francisco Federal Building in 1977.

Photo courtesy of The Disability Social History Project 

From Independence Now: “The first federal civil rights protection for people with disabilities was Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which was signed into law in 1973. Section 504 outlines the rights of people with disabilities to have access to all program benefits and services where federal funds are received. It also forbids discrimination by employers. This key legislation laid the groundwork for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

During the 25-day sit-in, outside support was key to allowing the occupation to continue until the regulations were signed on April 28, 1977. Especially important was the help from the Black Panther Party which provided hot meals daily to all the protesters.”

Brad Lomax

Brad and his brother, Glenn, smiling and sitting in front of a bookshelf.] Lomax, left, with his brother, Glenn, in 1974 in the library of the Black Panther Party’s offices in Oakland, Calif.

Photo courtesy of The New York Times

In 1968 Brad Lomax was a Howard University student when he received a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. He began using a wheelchair soon after and was quickly alerted to the lack of access for people with disabilities. He went on to help found the Washington D.C. chapter of The Black Panther Party in 1969 and then organize the first African Liberation Day on the National Mall in 1972.

From Independence Now: “Brad Lomax was unflinching in his advocacy around Black empowerment and disability rights. In 1974, Lomax was working at the Panthers’ George Jackson Clinic, which provided free community medical care as part of the BPP “serve the people” programs. Recognizing the need for more disability services and supports in his own community, in 1975, Lomax approached Ed Roberts (who had helped found the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley in 1972), with a proposal to open a Center for Independent Living (CIL) in East Oakland under Black Panther sponsorship. Less than a year later, with Lomax as one of a two-person staff, the East Oakland CIL opened in a storefront, offering basic peer counseling and attendant referral.”

Fannie Lou Hamer

A women sitting in front of a podium

Photo courtesy of The National Women’s History Museum

Fannie Lou Hamer was born on October 6, 1917, in Montgomery County, Mississippi. As a child Hamer had contracted polio, later she faced the horror of forced sterilization, which was done to many black women in Mississippi at the time. When she was brutally beaten by police officers in a Mississippi jail she suffered lifelong complications from her injuries, including a blood clot in her eye, leg damage, and kidney damage. These conditions fueled Hamer into the fierce advocate and powerful orator she would become.

The trajectory of her life would change forever in 1962 at a civil rights meeting led by led by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Hamer went on to join SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee. In 1963 she became a SNCC Field Secretary traveling around the country in an effort to register Black Americans to vote. During her life Hamer helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party, ran for the Mississippi House of Representatives, founded the National Women’s Political Caucus, helped organize Freedom Summer, and started the Freedom Farm Cooperative, a 640-acre farm that offered Black people economic opportunity.

Barbara Jordan

Barbara Jordan

Photo courtesy of The National Women’s History Museum

Barbara Jordan was born on February 21, 1936, in Houston, Texas. Barbara Jordan had many firsts in her political career. A few being, she was the first Black woman to be elected to the Texas senate in 1966. She was elected president of the Texas Senate in 1972, making her the first black woman in America to oversee a legislative body. Jordan also became the first Black woman to be elected to Congress from the South. In 1976 Barbara Jordan became the first Black woman to deliver a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. Concurrent to her many achievements Jordan developed multiple sclerosis in 1973 and became a wheelchair user later on in 1992.

Lois Curtis

Lois Curtis

Photo Courtesy of The National Women’s History Museum

Lois Curtis was one of the plaintiffs of the landmark Supreme Court case Olmstead vs. L.C. in 1999. This case “found the unjustified segregation of people with disabilities is a form of unlawful discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).”  – U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Diagnosed with cognitive disabilities and schizophrenia, Lois Curtis had been institutionalized at an early age. By age 19 Curtis wanted to transition from her institution to the community but found they would not allow her this opportunity even though she had not received adequate treatment or care for her diagnoses. Curtis reached out to the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, asking them to aid her in her release from the institution. Elaine Wilson, another woman with a history similar to Curtis joined the lawsuit as Curtis’s co-plaintiff. Together they won their case and Curtis was able to live in group homes, care homes, and eventually an apartment of her own. A visual artist, Curtis is most widely known for her colorful and bold portraits.

Johnnie Lacy

Johnnie Lacy at the Berkeley Center for Independent Living, 1975. Copyright Ken Stein photo

From Independence Now: “Today we’re sharing the story of Johnnie Lacy, a social justice pioneer and one of the founding members of the first Center for Independent Living (CIL), in Berkeley, CA. At age 19, she contracted polio and became paralyzed. Lacy later attended San Francisco State University to study speech-language pathology, but the head of the department attempted to block her from being interred in his school. In a 1998 interview for UC Berkeley’s oral history archive, Lacy recalls, “. . . my final and departing shot to him was that if I were just a woman, he could not do this to me; if I were only a person of color, he would not be able to do this to me;” the only way that you are able to take this unfair advantage is because I have a disability.” Johnnie Lacy was allowed to enroll in the program, but she was not allowed to be a part of the school or participate in her graduation. She then became an activist in the Disability Rights Movement, working at Berkeley’s Center for Independent Living and similar institutions, eventually becoming the Director of Community Resources for Independent Living in Hayward, California. As a Black woman in a wheelchair, she educated her communities about race and disability and served as a role model for many other black women with disabilities.”

For more information please visit:

The Intersection of Black and Disability History
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