As Black History Month winds down, it’s important to take a moment to reflect on the African-American civil rights movement and the impact that Black activists have made on the disability rights movement. Disability rights and African-American civil rights have always been closely aligned and often intersect. In fact, it is safe to say that the African-American civil rights movement, which started to grow in the early 1900s, paved the way for the disability rights movement that would follow years later.
One such example is the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education in Topeka, which ruled that separate schools for Black and white children are inherently unequal and unconstitutional. This pivotal decision became a catalyst for the African-American civil rights movement, which in turn helped inspire the disability rights movement. As many of us know, it wasn’t that long ago when children with disabilities could be kept segregated from mainstream schools and denied the same educational opportunities as their peers.
Over the years, many Black activists have been instrumental in shaping and advancing the disability rights movement. Below is an overview of some of these individuals below, but we encourage everyone to learn more about them and others who have helped lead the way.
Disability rights advocate, Dr. Sylvia Walker
(Photo courtesy of the Moorland-Springarn Research Center, Howard University Archives)
Dr. Sylvia Walker
Dr. Walker, who was blind, was a lifelong champion for minority persons with disabilities. She held four degrees and became a full-time professor at the esteemed Howard University in Washington, D.C. She was the founder and director of the Howard University Center for Disability and Socioeconomic Policy Studies (originally the Center for the Study of Handicapped Children and Youth at Howard University), which was the first federal Research and Training Center focused on minority issues. The author of numerous research papers and articles about the need for accessibility, education, and rehabilitation services among minority populations, Dr. Walker’s work contributed to the development and passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). To honor her legacy, one of the conference rooms at The Independence Center bears her name. (Read more about Dr. Walker by clicking here.)
A disability rights/independent living movement leader, Brad Lomax who had multiple sclerosis (MS) and used a wheelchair. He participated in the famous 504 Sit-in in San Francisco, which was organized to demand that Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) secretary Joseph Califano sign the regulations of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Most of the other sit-ins ended quickly, but the one in San Francisco was exceptionally well prepared, well organized, and well fed. This was in part due to Lomax’s connections to the Oakland Black Panthers. As noted in the recent documentary, Crip Camp, the Black Panthers publicly endorsed the action and carried hot meals from Oakland to San Francisco every day of the protest. Lomax and his attendant, Chuck Jackson, also became one of 14 individuals with disabilities and eight attendants selected to go to Washington D.C. to attempt to force a meeting with Califano. The sit-in became the longest peaceful occupation of a federal building in history and resulted in Califano signing the regulations. (Learn more about Brad Lomax by clicking here.)
This social justice pioneer was one of the founding members of the first Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, California. She acquired a physical disability after contracting polio at the age of 19 and used a wheelchair for the rest of her life. She studied speech-language pathology at San Francisco State University, despite an attempt by the department head to block her from enrolling in the school. However, she was not allowed to be in the school or participate in her own graduation. In a 1998 interview for UC Berkeley’s oral history archive, Lacy recalled, “. . . 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.” This experience spurred her to become an activist in the disability rights movement. In addition to her work at the Berkeley CIL, she spent her life educating about race and disability and served as a role model for many other Black women with disabilities. (Learn more about Johnnie Lacy by clicking here.)
Don Galloway became legally blind at the age of 13 after being struck in the eye with a friend’s bow and arrow. Even as a young man in the 1950s, he was an activist. In high school, he was vice president of the local junior branch of the NAACP and was a junior member of the National Federation of the Blind. He went on to become a key player in the early days of the independent living movement, after Ed Roberts invited him to work with the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley as its director of services for blind people. Later, he became executive director of the Governor’s Council on the Handicapped in Denver, followed by an appointment from 1978 to 1980 as Peace Corps director in Jamaica. He also served as the director of the Center for Independent Living in Washington and in various leadership roles on many commissions and panels on disability rights. Through his activism and leadership, the IL movement – which was predominantly white in the 1970s – became much more diverse. (Learn more about Don Galloway by clicking here.)
These remarkable trailblazers left a lasting impact on civil rights for people with disabilities. As a blog post by the Orange Grove Center in California put it, “Black history shaped, and continues to shape, how African Americans and individuals with disabilities lead independent, self-affirming lives and are defined according to their personhood – their ideas, beliefs, hopes, and dreams – above and beyond their race and disability.”