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Black (Disability) History: Past, Present, & Future.

by | Feb 28, 2022 | Blog

By Rasheera Dopson, AAPD Intern

Today marks the final day of Black History Month. Understanding and celebrating Black history is an integral part of truly understanding American history. Commemorating Black history dates all the way back to the early 1900s. Previously referred to as “Negro History week,” the practice of formally celebrating and acknowledging Black history was initiated as a movement to acknowledge Black achievement. President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month in 1976, calling upon the public to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Since then, the celebration of Black history has grown into a full 28 days and is recognized in the United States as well as abroad in countries such as the United Kingdom and Canada. 

The line of achievement among Black Americans is a crucial thread that holds the American fabric together. Black American achievement and excellence is even more remarkable when considering how it has occurred against a backdrop of structural and interpersonal racism and anti-Blackness, oppression, and harm. In preventing the erasure of Black history, the continued fight for visibility and representation of the Black American experience remains a priority. 

From states attempting to pass legislation banning the teaching of Black history in schools to the recognition of racism as a public health issue, the invitation to honor Black history and Black presence in our society is louder than ever. In lifting up a few of the many examples of Black history and leadership that should be celebrated, I wanted to create a space where Black voices are amplified and a spectrum of black experiences are shared. To honor Black history, today I am highlighting “Black Disability.”

Black Disability is what I like to refer to as a subsection of the Black experience that not only looks at disability through a Black lens, but also illustrates the intersection of a double minority identity that is often hidden within the Black community. This group of golden gems deserve to have their stories told and for their experiences to be recognized by the Black community as a whole.  Here at AAPD we’re recognizing Black Disability History by honoring its “Past, Present and Future.”

1. Fannie Lou Hamer – Born in Mississippi in 1917, Fannie Lou Hamer, daughter of sharecroppers, found her path to activism from her lived experience. Hamer had polio as a child and became further disabled following a brutal briefing in a Mississippi jail. She also faced a form of medical abuse that was committed against thousands of other black women at the time and countless disabled people throughout history when she became a victim of forced sterilization. Later, Hamer attended a civil rights meeting held by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), where she became involved in the voting rights movement as a community organizer. She went on to co-found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in 1964, helped organize the Freedom Summer of 1964, and in 1971, helped found the National Women’s Political Caucus. Her grassroots work left an indelible mark on Mississippi and paved the way for voting rights for hundreds of thousands in her local communities and nationally. AAPD also has an initiative named after Hamer, the Fannie Lou Hamer Leadership Program. This program is designed for young (ages 18 – 30) Black disabled advocates who are committed to boosting voter registration and civic engagement across Black communities leading up to elections.

2.  Donald GallowayBorn in 1938 in Washington, D.C., Donald Galloway became blind in an accident in his early teens. Despite his injury, Donald found pride in his disability, and molded his experiences into tangible leadership roles, becoming an advocate for disability rights. He became a junior member at the NAACP, and also served as a junior member for the National Federation of the Blind. Galloway received his master’s degree in social work and became heavily engaged in Berkeley’s Center for Independent Living. From his time spent in community activism, Galloway rose through the ranks to become a leader at the Center for Independent Living branch in Washington D.C. One of the most landmark moments in Galloway’s activism was when he advocated for representation in the D.C. Superior Court. After receiving a jury summons, Galloway was dismissed from consideration as a juror on the grounds that he was unable to fulfill his civic duty because he could not see. Galloway fought back, filing a lawsuit against the District, which found in 1993 that dismissing a juror on the basis of disability was unconstitutional. His advocacy efforts challenged systems and enabled the voices of those most vulnerable to be heard in an impactful way. 

3. Brad Lomax– Born in 1950 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Brad Lomax was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis during his freshman year of college and became a wheelchair user. He quickly discovered that many buildings were inaccessible to him. He also got involved with the D.C. chapter of the Black Panther party and helped organize the 1972 Africa Liberation movement on the National Mall. In 1973 he moved to Berkeley, California, where, after encountering issues to access public transportation, he decided to get involved in the local disability movement. He advocated for more resources for Black people with disabilities — partnering with the Black Panther party to bring resources to Black communities in east Oakland. In 1977, he was among the activists who executed an historic sit-in at the San Francisco Federal Building to urge Section 504-Rehabilitation Act of 1973. His actions ensured that activists were clothed, fed, and provided adequate shelter during times of protest, an effort which the Black Panthers and other grassroots organizations contributed to during the Section 504 sit-in. His commitment to the disability rights movement helped set the stage for major transformation and actionable change for generations to come.  

4Claudia Gordon- Born in Jamaica in 1972, Claudia Gordon is the first known deaf Black woman to earn a Juris Doctorate in the United States. Gordon lost her hearing at the age of eight and was removed from school to do chores at home. Growing up in Jamaica, Gordon faced significant discrimination at young age due to her deafness. She immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 11 and returned to formal education at the Lexington school for deaf in New York City.  She later went on to attend Howard University where she received her B.A. in political science, and to American University College of Law. After her law school graduation, she worked as a senior policy advisor for the Department of Homeland Security. Her notable work began to gain traction as she advocated for disabled people during Hurricane Katrina. She was then called upon by the White House to serve as a public engagement advisor working with the disability community. Gordon continues to blaze trails for black and brown disabled people across the nation. In 2002, she was a recipient of AAPD’s Paul G. Hearne Emerging Leader Award. 

5. Tatiana Lee– is an award-winning actress, model, and activist born with Spina Bifida. Growing up in Coatesville Pennsylvania, Lee felt underrepresented in media and entertainment, and began to utilize social media strategy to  In being vocal about disability visibility Lee has leveraged social media to not only raise awareness but to expand her platform for other disabled artists. She is the voice of the AccessibleHollywood brand, Lee’s award-winning work can be seen in films such as Footloose, Jade, and Together & Better. Her modeling campaigns can be seen in ads at Target, Zappos, and more. Her commitment to creating a more inclusive Hollywood has created opportunity for and awareness of other emerging disabled entertainers. She continues to speak, advise, consult, and educate others in film and media, including with companies like Netflix and The Walt Disney Company. 

6. Dr. Feranmi OkanlamiDr. Feranmi Okanlami’s – also known as “Dr. O” – journey in disability advocacy began unexpectedly. During his 4th year surgical residency at Yale University, Dr. O was paralyzed during a swimming incident that caused his life to take a drastic turn. Now, as an advocate for disability inclusion, and especially diversity and inclusion in the field of medicine, Dr. O makes it his mission to ensure that the conversation of disability and diversity are at the table when talking about the experiences of doctors, medical students, and patients. He currently serves as faculty member at Michigan Medicine at the University of Michigan and speaks to medical students and practitioners across the nation. 

7.  Wesley Hamilton– Wesley Hamilton founded the non-profit organization “Disabled but Not Really” after becoming disabled when he survived a shooting that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Facing a long journey to recovery, Hamilton made the decision to pivot and use his newly acquired disability status to make a difference for others. Now serving as an advocate in the disability community, Hamilton’s aim is to ensure that individuals with disabilities have access to inclusive fitness training. In launching his own accessible fitness program, he uses his platform to not only advocate for more inclusive fitness programs for wheelchair users but has also become a champion in speaking out on black disability representation and inclusion and ADA compliance. 

8. Leon Ford– Born in 1993 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Leon Ford became paralyzed in a tragic injustice in which he suffered a case of mistaken identity and was shot by the police five times during a routine traffic stop. At the young age of 19, Ford was brought into the disability community by an act of police brutality. He has since grown and used his platform to speak out against racial injustice, disability discrimination, and to bring a greater understanding of cultural competency and training to law enforcement across the country. He is a recipient of the President’s Volunteer Service Award from President Obama and was named one of Pittsburgh’s 40 under 40. Ford’s activism highlights the specific injustices experienced by black and disabled people alike. 

9.  Andraéa LaVant– Andraéa LaVant was raised in Louisville Kentucky and diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy at the age of 2 years old. She is a communications expert. impact producer, culture creator, and does it all while displaying iconic fashion and accessorizing. She is the founder and President of LaVant Consulting, a social impact communications and strategy consulting firm that helps brands address disability in a confident and competent manner. LaVant has been an active and critical voice in disability advocacy for more than fifteen years, and recently helped produce and led the campaign for the award-winning Oscar-nominated documentary “Crip Camp.” After, as she self-described, spending half her life “running away” from the identifier of disability, today, LaVant leads the way in bringing disability to mainstream media while breaking down our culture of othering and ostracizing disabled people, especially disabled people of color. 

10.  Haben Girma– Born in Oakland California in 1988, Haben Girma is the first deaf-blind woman to graduate from Harvard Law School. Her journey to fighting for the full access and inclusion of individuals with disabilities began in her journey during her undergraduate studies, where she had to advocate for access to her school’s cafeteria lunch menu. After graduating from Harvard Law School, she has written a memoir and consulted for globally recognized companies such as Apple, Microsoft, GE, SXSW, the New York Times and more to improve their accessibility. She believes and states often that “disability is an opportunity to drive innovation”. Girma uses her platform not only to advocate for accessibility, but to create long lasting solutions that benefit the disabled and non-disabled communities as a whole.