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Black History Month + Disability

April 5, 2024 by Dr. Michele A. Williams

As we start #BlackHistoryMonth, often the stories we share omit Disabled identity and experience when it applies. Thus, I wanted to start a series of amplifying important figures with an intersection of Black+Disabled.

Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer stands on a raised platform surrounded by people holding the microphone for a loudspeaker being held up by a man a couple of feet away from her. She has a determined and passionate look on her face as she talks with the assemebled crowd.

Fannie Lou Hamer speaks to Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party sympathizers outside the Capitol in Washington, D.C. in September 1965. (WILLIAM J. SMITH/AP)

I start the month acknowledging civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. Ms. Hamer is not a person I grew up learning about in school, but I would come to find out that her bold testimonies and unwavering activism played an undeniable role in the creation and passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Her quote, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired,” resonates with many to this day.

But it’s even later in life through Disabled activists that I would come to learn, “[s]he lived with the long-term effects of polio, and a violent beating in 1963 in a Mississippi jailhouse left her with kidney damage, a blood clot behind one eye, and a permanent limp.” (The Center for Learner Equity)

I encourage you to read an even more reflective and comprehensive write-up about how Ms. Hamer’s disability identity impacted her activism in The 19th.

Disabled is an identity too often unacknowledged in our #DEI efforts and yet is the one identity that cuts across every other human segment. Rather than keep it hidden, I encourage us to raise our awareness and, in turn, our impact.

Andraéa LaVant

Andraéa LaVant flashes a large smile as she shows a three-quarters profile looking past the camera. Her head and shoulders are visible in the photo. She is wearing a colorful flower print dress, red lipstick, and fun, colorful glasses.

Andraéa LaVant

#BlackHistoryMonth isn’t just about the past, there’s history still being made today. Just one example: Andraea LaVant of LaVant Consulting, Inc.

Among many achievements and accolades, Ms. LaVant is the first Disabled Black woman on the Oscars Red Carpet as part of her role in the groundbreaking documentary Crip Camp. In case you missed it, the Crip Camp 2020 Virtual Experience hosted by Ms. LaVant was an amazing opportunity to learn from incredible disability advocates and receive a crash course in disability justice. Check out the camp visit from President Obama, for instance.

Though I don’t know Ms. LaVant personally (maybe one day), I do know she is a consultant and producer intent on making disability visible. Thus, if you’re serious about disability inclusion then that must mean you’re reaching out to the folks at LaVant Consulting, Inc.

Brad Lomax

Brad and Glenn Lomax smile for the camera wearing suits in this black and white photo. Brad is seated in a wheelchair. Glenn squats beside him.

Brad and Glenn Lomax

Are you familiar with the pivotal Section 504 sit-in protests? Well, in the retellings of it you’ll always hear how the Black Panther Party was integral to the event. This is due to Black Disabled Civil Rights activist Brad Lomax.

Born in 1950 in Pennsylvania, Mr. Lomax would first contend with racial inequality, then later in life experience disability inequality when diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He used a wheelchair when necessary and began to face the reality of living in a pre-ADA world where buildings (and much, much more) were not accessible to Disabled folks.

Helping to found the Washington, D.C. chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1969, Mr. Lomax’s activism would start to bridge civil rights movements. He would more directly connect with disability rights activism after moving to California in 1973, prompted by the indignation that he couldn’t board a city bus without his brother carrying him.

During this time, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was (and is) a critical federal civil rights law that provides several key protections for citizens with disabilities. This should have solved for many issues, but it wasn’t being implemented and enforced.

Disabled activists had grown tired of waiting for their equal rights and beginning April 5, 1977, occupied federal buildings in several cities as a sit-in protest. One protest in San Francisco would end up being the key to change because it went on for an entire month—in an inaccessible building because, well, they hadn’t yet enforced the laws that would make the building accessible.

Many incredible activists and civil rights groups would be involved not only in this protest but years of advocacy leading up to this and many others after. Key in the list is Mr. Lomax who occupied the building for 3 weeks despite cut off water supply and phone lines. He would then be part of the contingent to travel to Washington, D.C. to continue the advocacy work—again, traveling without any accommodations.

Mr. Lomax would see the Section 504 regulations signed and enforced, though he would pass away in 1984 prior to seeing other landmark efforts such as the ADA. Thankfully his legacy has been recorded by many and is available for us to continue to gleam from.

Civil rights includes disability rights, they’re not separate. And just as we’re still fighting on many other civil rights fronts, disability rights were not “solved” by the passing of Section 504, the ADA, or any other legislation. There’s still much to do, but it requires intentionality.

So whether it’s ensuring your planned civil rights protest will include an accessible route, or including alt text on your images in social media, it’s all connected to equality, dignity, and autonomy.

Lois Curtis

Lois Curtis sits at a small picnic table next to a lake with her art supplies as she paints a portrait of a dog. She has a big smile on her face and her frock is covered with drops of paint.

Lois Curtis showcasing her artist talents

An important civil rights figure we need to talk about every #BlackHistoryMonth is Lois Curtis. “She was the lead plaintiff in a landmark Supreme Court decision that gave people with disabilities [and older adults] the right to seek care services in their own homes and communities, not just in institutions,” as is highlighted in her Washington Post obituary article (paywall).

The case was Olmstead v. L.C., where Ms. Curtis was the “L.C.” Diagnosed with schizophrenia and developmental disabilities, she spent more than half her life in state institutions in Georgia. This life was excruciating and not what she desired for herself or others.

Through a social worker she would get to know Sue Jamieson, an Atlanta Legal Aid lawyer. When asked what Ms. Curtis thought Legal Aid could do for her, she would respond: “Get me out of here. Would you please get me out of here? When am I getting out of here?” Read more about Ms. Curtis.

Sue Jamison filed a lawsuit on behalf of Ms. Curtis and one of Ms. Curtis’s friends, Elaine Wilson. The case would make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court where, in a decision delivered by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Court found that Curtis, her co-plaintiff Elaine Wilson, and other people with disabilities had a right under the Americans with Disabilities Act to live in a “less restrictive setting.”

This ruling not only helped Ms. Curtis move out of institutional care and into her own home, but changed the landscape of elder and disability care throughout the country. “We went from a system in 1999 that the only places that most people with disabilities and older adults could get services were in institutions like nursing homes and psychiatric hospitals, to systems that are primarily focused on supporting people with services in their own homes,” remarked Alison Barkoff, the top federal official for aging and disability policy.

After being able to move into home environments, Ms. Curtis would discover her artistic gifting through pencil and pastel drawings. At a White House celebration of the Olmstead decision in 2011, she presented President Obama a picture she called “Girl in an Orange Dress” which was a self-portrait because she had no photographs from the years she lived in the state psychiatric hospitals.

In a short video she made for the National Disability Rights Network in 2020, Ms. Curtis said: “My name is Lois Curtis. Happy Black History Month. I’m glad to be free.”

Read more at Disability Community Remembers Pioneering Advocate Lois Curtis.

Tracey D. Jackson

Tracey Jackson poses with a bat at a Beep Baseball event. He is wearing black shorts and a bright pink T-shirt and is standing on a school sports field.

Tracey Jackson has been playing beep baseball for 10 years

For #BlackHistoryMonth I want to also spotlight those living the everyday experiences of Black+Disabled. This includes friend and colleague Tracey D. Jackson.

At age 9, Tracey lost his sight due to an accident. Thankfully Tracey’s parents did not raise him to view a loss of sight as a deficit.

He would have a successful career in music production before transitioning to Assistive Technology (AT) Specialist including his current position as an Accessibility and UX Consultant at U.S. Bank. As CEO of Phoenix Elite Solutions, Tracey’s team empowers blind and low vision individuals with AT training and work site accommodations. He’s also an avid Beep Baseball player.

As with most Disabled people, his path was not an easy one, however: in college he would need to scan and Braille his hard copy textbooks to keep up with assignments; as a city dispatcher trying to level up positions, they would suddenly require a driver’s license to do the job; and acquaintances along the way would not believe he worked and lived independently with his wife and children in a home he owned.

I asked Tracey for parting insights. He said, “Designing with accessibility in mind essentially gives sight to the blind. The more things become accessible and AT improves, I’ve been able to do all that I do and participate in the way I’ve been able to do it.” His philosophy, rooted in the Social Model of Disability, underscores that it’s our perspectives, not impairments, that hinder inclusion.

Let’s amplify Tracey’s reminder to prioritize inclusion and accessibility. Shout out to him in the comments! Also, DM him for AT training, accessibility consulting, or UX research participation. Together we can make accessibility work! ♿