Honoring Black History Month: Unsung Heroes of the Disability Rights Movement

The month of February is dedicated to honoring the long history of Black Americans and their many contributions to society. The first celebration began in 1926 and it has grown steadily over the years into what we now know as Black History Month. This month, we’re highlighting the stories of Black heroes whose vision, commitment and activism helped advance progress for people with disabilities. As we reflect on the past, we remember the incredible advocates who are too often left out of the retelling of history. 

Johnnie Lacy: A Voice for Black Women with Disabilities

Johnnie Lacy was born in 1937 in Huttig, Arkansas but soon relocated with her family to Mcloud, California. Lacy was diagnosed with polio at the age of 19 and placed in an iron lung for weeks. Eventually, the polio left her paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. 

After rehab, Lacy went back to college and completed her degree, at a time when doing so meant overcoming discrimination based on her race, gender and disability. She helped found the Center for Independent Living at Berkeley and became the Director of the Community Resources for Independent Living (CRIL) in its early days from 1981 to 1994. During her time at CRIL, she engaged the community in groundbreaking and essential conversations about identity and the challenges that come with being a Black woman with a disability

In her own words, listen to or read Johnnie Lacy’s oral history

Brad Lomax & Chuck Jackson: Uniting the Civil Rights Community

In 1977, frustrated with the federal government’s failure to address disability discrimination, disability rights advocates participated in a 28-day protest at a federal building in San Francisco. These activists demanded that the government issue regulations for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and their efforts have now become known as the “504 Sit In”. Many of the activists — having disabilities of their own — lacked the necessary medical equipment, caretakers and medication to participate in the sit in. 

The “504 Sit In” has been widely written about, but the involvement of two Black disability activists, Brad Lomax and Chuck Jackson, has been largely overlooked. These two members of the Black Panther Party, Brad Lomax, and his assistant, Chuck Jackson, participated in the sit in. Lomax was an Oakland resident with multiple sclerosis which required him to use a wheelchair. Together, Lomax and Jackson worked with their community to cook and deliver hot meals to disability rights advocates during the 28-day protest. 

Lomax and Jackson joined other disability rights activists, including Judy Heumman, to fly to Washington, DC to further pressure the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to implement the regulations. To learn more about Judy Huemman’s amazing work and her involvement in the sit-ins, watch our conversation with her.

Ultimately, due to this unified advocacy effort, the government issued regulations for Section 504. These regulations would eventually lay the groundwork for the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. According to disability rights activist Corbett O’Toole, these advocates “showed us what being an ally could be. We would never have succeeded without them. They are a critical part of disability history and yet their story is almost never told.⁠”

Glenn Lomax, Brad Lomax’s brother, shares a first-hand account of his leadership through this video.

Bessie Blount: Transforming what is Possible through Assistive Technology

Bessie Virginia Blount was born in 1914 in Hickory, Virginia. She made significant breakthroughs in assistive technologies, particularly for World War II veterans who were amputees. 

Blount attended Diggs Chapel Elementary School, a small school house that educated children of free Black people, former slaves and Native Americans, until sixth grade. There were no schools in her area for Black students where she could continue her education. She was self-educated until attending Union Junior College in Cranford, New Jersey and gained nursing training at Community Kennedy Memorial Hospital. Blount then became a licensed physiotherapist. 

During World War II, Blount joined the Gray Ladies, a group of non-medical volunteers who worked at military hospitals. “After coming in contact with paralyzed cases known as diplegia and quadriplegia (blind paralysis), I decided to make this my life’s work.” Blount told Afro-American

Blount believed that it was important for people with disabilities to be able to feed themselves in order to have independence and increase their self-esteem. To do this, Blount came up with a device that consisted of a tube that transported individual bites of food to the patient’s mouth. Blount’s innovation was one of the earliest forms of assistive technology for individuals with disabilities and she paved the way for many more advancements in the field.

These Black advocates, inventors, and activists — Johnnie Lacy, Brad Lomax, Chuck Jackson, and Bessie Blount — each contributed something unique to the disability movement and have helped our communities get to where we are today. It’s hard to imagine a world without their significant contributions.

NCLD Celebrates Black History Month

NCLD is proud to celebrate Black History Month – a time when we honor the achievements and accomplishments of Black Americans, draw inspiration from the past, and renew our commitment to creating a better future. 

Often overlooked in the disability rights movement are the integral contributions of Black Americans, without whom we would not have achieved the same progress. And yet, the disability and LD community remain a largely white, middle-class movement. This is a stark reminder of the work that remains to lift up Black voices and support Black disability leaders, like those leading #Blackdisabledlivesmatter and those, like Stacey Abrams, working to increase access for individuals with disabilities to their right to vote.

We must also reflect on how we, as individuals and as an organization, can work to change our system and fight against the racism that permeates our schools and communities. NCLD is committed to ensuring that Black students receive the same high-quality learning opportunities as their peers and receive more funding for their public schools.

In partnership with The Education Trust we launched a series of conversations that examine the challenges of self-advocacy for Black girls with learning disabilities. Watch here.

Even as we celebrate, our journey is long and we must continue to dismantle systems that hold back Black individuals with disabilities. We must build a future where Black individuals live the full, just, and equitable lives that they deserve. This February, NCLD recommits to remembering our past, improving ourselves and our society today, and investing in a better future for Black Americans.

Black Girls w/ Disabilities: Pushed Out, Unsupported, Struggling to Learn

We’ve made a lot of promises to students with disabilities over the years: our federal civil rights laws are the bedrock upon which we build a lifetime of learning and growth for students. But our promises are not kept equally for all students: Black girls with disabilities are often left holding the pieces of broken promises made by policymakers and school leaders. From inadequate educational experiences to constant, harmful disciplinary practices, school is a harmful place for many Black girls with disabilities.

NCLD, in conjunction with our partners at The Education Trust, wanted to hear more from two of our Young Adult Leadership Council (YALC) members about their experiences in school as Black girls with learning disabilities. Self-advocacy is one of the key skills we hope students with disabilities will learn and develop over time. Being a self-advocate is a survival skill for most students with disabilities, but Black students with disabilities are often denied the chance to be self-advocates because of societal views that cast them off as outspoken, disrespectful, or misbehaved. Our YALC members shared their struggles with pull-out special education practices, the value of having a Black teacher,and how important Black parents and guardians are to helping their children become self-advocates. They also offered suggestions for how advocates can lean in and improve p-12 educational systems to better support Black students with disabilities.

This blog captures parts of a recorded conversation between Alyssia Jackson, YALC Alumnus, Atira Roberson, current YALC Member, and Lynn Jennings, Ph.D., Senior Director of National and State Partnerships at Ed Trust. We invite you to listen and share your thoughts with us on Facebook or Twitter under the hashtag #BlackandLD.

Are Black girls forced to choose between their race or their disability?

Black girls with disabilities often face difficult choices when advocating for themselves in school. Social stigma about disabilities makes it harder to ask for help and support when it’s needed. On top of that, Black girls are stereotyped as aggressive and disrespectful when asking for what they need or challenging the status quo. For some Black students with disabilities, this can pose a difficult decision: do I advocate for myself and advocate for the support and accommodations I’m due to help me learn, or do I remain quiet instead of risking discipline for racial and gender stereotypes that plague our schools? Atira, Alyssia, and Lynn discuss more in this clip:

A Triple Threat: Getting Into Good Trouble

Students with disabilities want their attributes and skills embraced in school and for educators to connect with students at a different level. Begin with empathy, and build learning systems for students with disabilities that meet them where they are. In this clip, Atira and Alyssia talk about their experiences in special education programs, and why they proudly embraced their identity as a triple threat: Black, disabled, and a woman.

The Impact of Black Educators in Classrooms

In our last clip from this conversation, Alyssia, Atira, and Lynn discuss ways to make school a more supportive environment, particularly as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and address the trauma of institutionalized racism and ableism. Lynn mentions an Ed Trust blog, Self-Advocacy or Defiance in Protests? the piece that launched our conversation about self-advocacy for Black students with disabilities.

I’m Not Sorry: How I Embrace and Own Being a Black Woman With Learning Disabilities

If someone would have told me that I’d be writing this blog post, I can guarantee you I would have laughed and walked away. If someone told me that I’d be in graduate school full-time, eight hours away from home, I would have smiled because I didn’t want to be rude. But in my head, I would have been thinking “this person is out of their mind.” 

When you’re a person like me (a black woman with a learning disability), people automatically put you in the type of box where they don’t expect you to achieve or do much of anything. I can’t even get mad at them, though. Because for the longest time, I put myself in that same box. I thought they were right to think that I couldn’t do the same work as everyone else. 

Now, before I go further, I want to give a brief definition and breakdown of the learning disability that I have: a Specific Learning Disability (SLD). SLD interferes with a student’s ability to think, read, write, spell, or do math. For me, SLD is manifested when I do math (dyscalculia) and spell (dyslexia). 

Growing up, I used to be ashamed of having a learning disability. I was afraid to speak up about anything you could possibly think of. I thought that having a learning disability was the worst thing that could possibly happen to me. I would often ask God, “Why is it so hard for me to learn and why do I have to be this way?” Of course, the answer was not given to me right away—we all know that’s not how it works LOL! But today I can say that I’m proud of having this learning disability. 

For so long, I would constantly apologize for taking longer to grasp whatever was being taught. When I was in high school, I enrolled in Introduction to Biology. In this class, our teacher would lecture via PowerPoint so we would stay on track. At the time, I was writing and reading extremely slowly (I did not have access to the accommodation tools that I have now). This teacher would say to me, “We don’t have time to wait for you to finish your notes. Either you have it or you don’t.” You can imagine how disheartening it was for me to hear that. As soon as she said that, I quickly apologized and just didn’t bother taking notes for the remainder of the lecture.

Through the years, I have done and continue to do everything in my power to prove everyone wrong. That includes proving myself wrong, because I used to believe what others said.  People said I couldn’t be or do anything because I have a learning disability, and also because—for whatever reason that is beyond me) people think that women (specifically black women) aren’t capable of doing anything. As a black woman with a learning disability, I have the determination and hunger to not only prove people wrong but to also inspire people who are just like me. Within the last year, I have told myself that my learning disability is a superpower. And as Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” 

On top of me being a black woman with a learning disability and inspiring people who are just like me, I want to make changes to the education system. Once I complete graduate school, I plan on becoming an education program and policy analyst. There are multiple reasons for me wanting to change the education system for the better. One of the reasons is that I believe the education system needs to work with and not against students who have learning disabilities. Too often I have seen that we as students with learning disabilities are pushed to the side and forced to apologize for who we are and what we need in school. This is something that we should all be upset about and want to change.

When I was given the opportunity to do this, my first thought was, “OK, now what is it that needs to be said, and dear God, I hope that I get this right.” One of my favorite quotes is “Do everything they say you can’t.” For me, this means that just because someone has no faith that you’ll be able to achieve something, that doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t do it. If anything, them saying that should give you more fuel and fire to keep going until it’s done.

My hope is that people from everywhere will read this and get inspired to achieve and accomplish whatever it is that they want to do. I want people to understand that they should never apologize for being different. Being different is one of the biggest blessings that we have. I mean, how dull would it be if we were all the same? Understand that although it may be difficult, if you can just embrace the struggle that you’re going through, I know that you’ll be unstoppable.

This blog was written by Atira Roberson, one of NCLD’s Young Adult Leadership Council members.