A Brief Look at the Intersection of Women’s History, Black History, and Disability

The International Women's Day logo - Be bold for change

International Women’s Day 2017: #BeBoldForChange https://www.internationalwomensday.com/



International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month: In the US and most countries around the world, women with disabilities have faced multiple hardships in the form of reduced access and sometimes outright discrimination in education, housing, and employment – both as women and as people with a disability. In addition, women of color often face a third challenge. A blog writer took a look back on 14 remarkable women of color of the past who have made powerful differences for the present and the future.

As February was Black History Month and March is Women’s History Month, we’ll examine the intersection of the two through the lens of disability. Many notable African American women made lasting contributions despite their disabilities. It is important, however, to “see the person, not the disability.” The late Australian comedienne and disability advocate coined the term inspiration porn in protest that people with disabilities should be objects of inspiration to make non-disabled people feel good.

Social worker and disability advocate Vilissa Thompson in her excellent blog “Ramp Your Voice” has compiled a list of important works and other resources of these individuals.


Harriet Tubman black woman disabled disability

Harriet Tubman (1822–1913)










Harriet Tubman (1822–1913), abolitionist known for her work on the Underground Railroad, suffered epileptic seizures. Because of her short stature, she was seen among slave owners as disabled, a low risk of escape.



Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–1977), Civil Rights Activist black woman disabled with a disability from polio

Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–1977), Civil Rights Activist











Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–1977), was a civil rights activist who suffered physical disabilities from childhood polio.



Maya Angelou (1928–2014), laureate poet

Maya Angelou (1928–2014), was laureate poet and wrote a series of memoirs.











Maya Angelou (1928–2014), laureate poet, found a voice in her memoirs and poetry. As a child, she developed selective mutism after a sexual assault.



Wilma Rudolph (1940–1994) track Olympian with physical disability

Wilma Rudolph (1940–1994), track and field Olympian











Wilma Rudolph (1940–1994) overcame childhood paralysis from the polio virus to become a track and field Olympian, the fastest woman in the world.

Honorable mention goes to Johnnie Lacy (1937-2010), an African American woman who from her wheelchair tirelessly advocated for the disability community. She has been recognized by the United African-Asian Abilities Club and the Temple University Disability Studies newspaper. (No copyright free photo of Ms. Lacy is available.)


A New Disability Advocate: The Ford Foundation


Mature aged man with a disability operating touchscreen computer

Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation makes a public effort to include people with disabilities.  He explained his organization’s initiative on the foundation’s blog in an open letter, titled Ignorance Is the Enemy: On the Power of Our Privelege and the Privilege of Our Power.   He cited the efforts of James Baldwin in the 1960s and 1970s and the Black Lives Matter movement of today as important forces in “confronting power, privilege, and ignorance.”  By privilege, Mr. Walker speaks of unearned advantages or preferential treatment one group holds over another.  And ignorance, he says, is such a ferocious enemy because of its conspiratorial silence.  As an African American gay man, Mr. Walker pledged his organization would focus on combating inequality.  At that time, leading disability advocates took Mr. Walker to task for overlooking a major constituency:  people with disabilities.  In this open letter, he acknowledges his error of omission with candor and has pledged to rectify it.  In his powerful and honest letter, he cites specific instances in which people of disabilities have faced all kinds of discrimination; in this context, he pledges to move “from ignorance to enlightenment.”

Carol Glazer, of the National Institute on Disability, was one of the first disability advocates to speak out in praise of Mr. Walker, in her blog post, “Ford Foundation’s Remarkable Mea Culpa Will Provide Greater Opportunities for People with Disabilities.”  The piece was published by Huffpost Business Mr. Walker, she says, has shown a profound leadership that should guide other philanthropic organizations.

Dr. Catherine Kudlick, of the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability, an important academic advocacy organization, acknowledged this important development but added that while it is an important start, more needs to be done.   She has three suggestions, which we quote:

  • Know that the best way to help people with disabilities is to find ways for disabled people to help you.  That means, says Dr. Kudlick, embracing the philosophy of “Nothing about us without us!”
  • Ask what it means to cure disability.   While alleviating physical or emotional suffering is important, says Dr. Kudlick, all too often the talk of a cure entails – even unintentionally – denying the disability rather than changing people’s attitudes.  Moreover, she says, it does not have to be an either/or.
  • Learn our history.  Doing so offers critical insight into important issues, such as discrimination.

Having said that, Dr. Kudlick is very pleased and optimistic about this development.  As an advocacy organization, so is the Advancing Opportunities team.