Black Disability History, Vol. III: Reclaiming the Black Disabled Experience
This is the third volume of this series on #BlackDisabilityHistory that I’ve written. As part of my philosophy, it won’t be the end of my search for more information on Black and Disabled as well as Neurodiverse people, both in the past and contemporaneously. There is a wealth of African-American History re: Black Disabled and/or Neurodiverse that still needs to be discussed, but I want people, especially our people, to come to an understanding that causes us to confront traditional Narratives, Histories, and Memories we’ve constructed in terms of Black Liberation, even Pan-Africanism. But that subject is another story I’ll delve into.
As far as the Narratives, Histories, and Memories that are hidden from our lives are concerned, I hope that the examples reveal that contrary to the complaints we always hear about being tired of Slavery or postbellum — especially Civil Rights — history, there is still a lot to discover and reclaim that surpasses convention. They demand our attention, because if we don’t tell these stories, someone else will tell them for us, and they will not be the stories we all deserve to hear.
In my first post on this subject, I shared Joice Heth’s story; this was something necessitated by articles I’d seen for Black History Month supposedly-highlighting the Disabled in our community. The problem? The myth P.T. Barnum created about Heth’s life was presented as fact in their post and not challenged at all. Few posts on Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins ventured beyond public fascination with his disabilities to call attention to how he was treated.
I also linked to a scholarly article discussing the treatment of enslaved Africans with disabilities by the Union’s forces, both before, during, and even after the Civil War. They were largely-abandoned and left on Southern plantations “in the care” of their former masters while government agents “monitored” them from a distance. Completely denied of any agency and individual rights of their own, some historians have still positioned this gross injustice as a kind of “mercy”; the equally-dehumanizing experiences of their able-bodied peers are viewed much differently, by no fault of their own, of course. Not necessarily the post’s focus, but nonetheless related in the context of the overarching issue I’ve raised.
In the second post, I began to discuss important Black-led social events defining aspects not only of our Memory, but also the Union’s History in terms of the Disabled and/or Neurodiverse in general (I did reference several figures involved in critical roles in the 504 Sit-ins in my first post, but I wasn’t as explicit as I was with Relf vs. Weinberger, Mills vs. Board of Education of D.C., et al). I’ve increasingly-felt that normalizing an awareness of the multiplicity of spectrums of Blackness involved in our collective struggle politically is just as important as acknowledging notables in other elements of our cultural Narratives. It’s impossible for a person to truly understand the gravity of the sterilizations of our communities, for example, if one doesn’t also factor in how doubly-impactful these intersections were in the legal system.
Among people who call themselves champions for Blackness, I’ve had the displeasure of meeting some with virulently ableist views that reinforce misguided beliefs that the demands Jackson, Lomax, Lacy, Billups, the Relfs, and others fought for — or are still fighting for — are “white feminist” concepts that have no importance to Black folks. The right to unapologetically-exist in defiance of an oppressive space suddenly no longer applies to the Black Disabled and/or Neurodiverse who choose to live unapologetically as well.
These grave misunderstandings, some of which are intentional, need to be deconstructed and corrected, especially in a climate where harmful pseudoscientific “treatments” are becoming in vogue; the proverbial shadow of eugenics is emerging during the pandemic, and some of our cultural influencers refuse to accept that people are wired differently and will be different no matter how “alkaline” a person’s diet is. Ableism, just like Sexism, Classism, Racism, and Heterodivergent antagonism, must also be dismantled if we truly want to see a free Black collective society.
Thus this ongoing struggle to reclaim Histories, Memories, and Narratives of Black Disabled and/or Neurodiverse experiences continues. Some will touch on serious subjects in the same vein of my previous posts.
So, let’s begin.
Ms. Jazzie Collins was a trans activist who fought for the Black elderly, LGBT, Disabled and/or Neurodiverse while wrestling with HIV, among myriad other issues. Her devotion would ensure that countless people of these identities, often intersecting, would have better opportunities in San Francisco.
Collins was born in 1958 in Memphis and spent most of her life there. By the time she was about thirty, she relocated to San Francisco.
Collins’ first major role in activism first came in 2002 when she was a SRO tenant at the Plaza Hotel; gentrification had crept in and the Redevelopment Agency of San Francisco was attempting to repurpose the property. Collins rallied several other SRO tenants to fight for affordable housing. Her activism for SRO tenants continued as she soon aided a local pantry — named “Sixth Street Agenda” — and petitioned for zoning rights under the Mission Agenda.
Collins later became a member of the South of Market Community Action Network (SOMCAN), an organization devoted to educating, organizing, and empowering low-income minority groups as well as immigrants. Her involvement in SOMCAN evolved to the point that she was involved in other networks, even elected a board member that reviewed development proposals in their area. Her role with SOMCAN reached its peak when she became a chair of the Stabilization Fund Committee, acting as an adviser on development expenditures.
Collins was involved in countless other projects, including QUEEN, which organized several protests. QUEEN’s involvement included a demonstration against a vendor supporting the exclusion of trans people from ENDA (Employment Non-Discrimination Act). Other positions Collins took on were as vice-chair of both the LGBT Aging Policy Taskforce, and the LGBT Senior Disabled Housing Taskforce. She once championed Prop L alongside other activists to raise minimum wages, and was an avid participant in a Committee that guaranteed healthcare access to all employees in their city.
With well over a decade of activism under her belt, Collins worked at Senior and Disability Action, and also joined the Board of Directors for the annual Trans March. Collins fell ill, and eventually passed away in 2013, and an adult homeless shelter for the LGBT was named in honor of her. In retrospect, Collins’ story is important because it demonstrates the interconnectedness of identities normally thought separate; she fought to ensure that her work against systems of oppression reflected it.
Leroy Moore Jr.
Leroy Moore Jr. is a Black and Disabled activist, author, and artist that pioneered the Krip-Hop Nation Movement, centered around combating Ableism perpetuated in the community in addition to larger issues pertaining to society. He was born with Cerebral Palsy and would wrestle with finding a way to express both identities as someone Disabled and Black throughout most of his formative years.
Moore was born to an activist family in 1967, and throughout his childhood in New York constantly wrestled with navigating his life both as someone with a disability and someone Black. Over time, he began to notice a profound void in the acknowledgement of these intersecting lived experiences through the little knowledge he could find about the lives of African Americans with disabilities. This journey would reveal a dearth of erasure that extended into the educational system itself.
Moore found that few of his peers or even the very professors of the schools he attended in myriad fields knew any information themselves about the lived experiences of those who were Black and Disabled throughout History and the ways that Ableism further compounded their struggles as Black folks. Frustrated by this, Moore explored the subject for himself and began with the presence of those who were Black and Disabled in the music industry, from Cortelia Clark to other notable groups like the Blind Boys of Alabama. He’d eventually interview some of them personally, which included Wonder Mike, DJ Shazz, The Helix Boyz, Miss Money, and Rob Da Noise Temple.
Moore’s praxis soon took on a greater focus and he found himself traveling to other countries and networking with Black Disabled and/or Neurodiverse communities that arose due to the failure of many mainstream Disability Activist movements to address the racism that was commonly-experienced and codified into these systems of Oppression. He intertwined his love of the arts with his activism, which included memberships in multiple advocacy groups and collaborations with disabled artists and activists such as The Disabled Advocates of Minorities Organization and the National Black Disability Coalition. He spent time writing as a columnist for Poor Magazine, participated in a radio series with Safi Wa Nairobi, and produced a mixtape that would inevitably serve as the co-founding of the Krip-Hop Project with its global showcase of myriad artists with Disabilities and their experiences in the industry.
Additional talent would contribute to the next mixtape in the series as the scope of the Krip-Hop Project continued to widen and other collaborations with Disability Coalitions as far as South Africa networked with him and his peers. Focus thus shifted to empowerment in music industries that put little faith in Black Disabled and/or Neurodiverse artists, often neglecting to hire or even adequately promote their work entirely. Moore would also work with his peers in the Krip-Hop movement to maximize their exposure and pursue equal representation in media, journalism, education, scholarship, and among the youth to combat stigmas. He also more explicitly addressed systemic forms of Ableism and Racism; notably, the Union’s history of racism and ableism that led to thousands of forced institutionalizations, abuses, and deaths.
Moore’s latest work includes collaborations with artists in Sins Invalid, an annual performance that explores themes of sexuality in addition to disability. He’s continued his research into the global Narratives and Memories of Black Disabled and/or Neurodiverse figures in History. He’s even written his own works of poetry, explored the intersections of Ableism and Race through his column in Poor Magazine, and continued activism through the Krip-Hop Project’s collaborations, as well as documentaries of Disabled and/or Neurodiverse artists.
The latest accomplishment of Moore included the completion of a documentary with Naru Kwina and other talent on the underrated legend Joe Capers, a Black and Blind producer who now has a month dedicated to his musical contributions in the San Francisco Bay area. If you’ve heard Tony! Toni! Toné!, Digital Underground, or MC Hammer — among many other artists — you’ve probably heard Capers’ musical craftsmanship.
What’s most important about Moore’s work, however is that his continuing amplification of voices other than his own highlights the global, multi-layered nature of Disability advocacy and Racial Justice in a world that insists on erasing it from History.
Lois Curtis is a Black and Neurodiverse activist and artist
who played a vital role in the movement supporting Community living instead of the common standard of Institutionalization for the Disabled and/or Neurodiverse. Her persistence — along with Elaine Wilson — would lead to the landmark ruling that reinforced new rights under the ADA.
From childhood, Curtis’ family struggled to care for her, due to an unfamiliarity with her conditions. She was eventually diagnosed with developmental and behavioral disabilities. Lack of appropriate treatment for her condition often led to Curtis constantly wandering off by herself, only to have the authorities called to locate her. She was engulfed in a revolving-door of jail and hospital visits that led to her constantly being institutionalized at Georgia Regional Hospital from the age of 11 into her late twenties, reportedly.
A systemic misunderstanding of Neurodiversity meant that Curtis was placed on psychotropic drugs and neglected throughout her stay with little regard for her emotional or physical wellbeing. Successfully securing placement in a home, something she began advocating for explicitly around the time she was 19, also ended in disaster; none of the staff were appropriately trained whatsoever. Any attempts by Curtis’ mother to acquire assistance from the state were denied, and Curtis was institutionalized yet again.
Curtis longed for an opportunity to live in a communal environment rather than confined and isolated. Another woman Curtis had befriended, also constantly institutionalized, desired the same: Elaine Wilson. They both petitioned doctors for community-based initiatives but were denied, even when evaluations by doctors demonstrated that involuntary institutionalization was no longer required. The fact that both had essentially been placed in the wrong institution also created additional barriers to alternatives.
Curtis eventually was approved — alongside Wilson — for a Medicaid waiver to transfer to an appropriate environment for treatment, but met resistance from the state again. The state decided that simply having Curtis in an institution already was more than enough and that they held no additional obligations to accommodate her. Curtis refused to back down, however, and sought the Atlanta Legal Aid Society’s help.
Curtis acted as the primary plaintiff alongside Wilson, who was also allowed to participate in the suit, in a legal claim against the state of Georgia, specifically Tommy Olmstead, the Commissioner of the Dep’t of Human Resources. They invoked the ADA with the assistance of the Legal Aid Society’s attorneys, notably Sue Jamieson, who filed on their behalf. Their chief argument in Olmstead vs. L.C. centered around a pervasive problem that had not only served as a common policy in handling the Disabled and/or Neurodiverse, but also one that disproportionately impacted women — including a significant number of Black and other non-white women: the forced institutionalization of the Disabled and/or Neurodiverse when integrated communities were proven to be more beneficial.
Judge Marvin Shoob, of the Federal District Court, ruled in Curtis’ favor and declared that the state’s failure to provide adequate community-based programs violated the ADA under Title II. Numerous appeals by the state eventually reached the SCOTUS, and they reiterated that sentiment, ruling in Curtis’ favor:
“Institutional placement of persons who can handle and benefit from community settings perpetuate unwarranted assumptions that person so isolated are incapable or unworthy of participating in community life.” -Ginsburg
The pivotal ruling came with a mandate that saw an estimated thousands of forcibly-institutionalized Disabled and/or Neurodiverse individuals released. New requirements states had to abide by in terms of community-based alternatives to institutionalization were also established. Yet, even despite being released from the institution into a personal care environment, Curtis continued to face new problems. She was transferred through more than ten group homes that failed to adequately care for her.
Years would pass before Curtis found stability. She was finally relocated to the Peer Center, a site that nurtured her creative drive through art that she draws and often sells with the assistance of her caretakers. Now, she’s the president of her own board and has sold her art through conferences, sometimes for hundreds of dollars, writes poetry, and myriad other things.
In this Narrative of Black Disability History, Curtis’ story reminds neurotypicals not to view those they do not understand as relics to be corralled into unproductive, restrictive, and often-dehumanizing institutions. It also reminds us that there are still systemic biases in spite of the progress that persists. The Disabled and/or Neurodiverse will always have a personal agency and right to exist in environments that uplift rather than limit and systemically oppress.
So everybody and their mama knows about Ray Charles, the legendary Blind Black artist who became an icon in his genre. But there’s another legend by the name of James “Jimmy” Scott, a Black Jazz singer who was also Disabled and happened to become renowned in his respective field as well, due to his emotive singing and distinctive contralto he turned into an artform, in part caused by the genetic disorder Kallmann’s Syndrome.
Scott’s disability (two of his brothers also suffered from it) stunted his growth and development long after he’d become an adult. This led to a delay in puberty that didn’t take place until his mid-thirties and after years of stigmatization and phobic speculation about his sexuality, gender, and masculinity that he wrestled with. Decades of personal hardship, record label complications and exploitation, and shifts in and out of recognition would pass until he successfully reignited his career in the 90s and onward, passing away in 2014 at 88. A few of his notable song performances are mentioned here. You can even borrow this biography on his life — which is based on interviews with him, friends, and relatives — from the Internet Archive Library.
Audre Lorde has an important space on this list as a Disabled Black Lesbian Feminist whose poetry, prose, and activism writ-large highlighted the ways in which Black Disabled life can inform all the aspects of our identities. Stressing the importance of empowerment through the acknowledgement of differences in lived experiences of womanhood, she became renowned for her exploration of Black female sexuality, the means in which her race and gender informed her experiences as a Cancer survivor post-mastectomy, and myriad other forms of discrimination and identity that were often neglected in the Feminist movements of her time. She instead argued for a commonality through a shared acknowledgment of those differences.
Lorde was born in 1934 in NYC, third-born with two older sisters named Phyllis and Helen. Her mother Linda was from Carriacou, and her father Frederick hailed from Barbados. As revealed in her Biomythography Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Lorde suffered from nearsightedness that reportedly made her legally Blind without corrective glasses, as well as affected how she perceived the world. She also was primarily nonverbal for the first few years of her life, until her mother and the local librarian Augusta Baker taught her literacy. Despite this however, her relationship with her parents was strained. Lorde’s mother especially was colorist towards her and this complicated relationship would later inform some of her later poetry. Her father, who was relatively distant in part because of his profession, would eventually pass from a stroke shortly after she’d graduated from high school.
Lorde showed an interest in poetry from a young age, often using poems as a means to express her feelings. She’d later reveal one of the primary reasons for this was due to a speech disability she struggled with that caused her to stutter. She would even write poems of her own, and publish her first while she attended Hunter High School. Lorde participated in poetry workshops but was ostracized by her peers because of her sexuality; Lorde however, managed to persist by finding kinship with other students who were also neglected. She would later use these experiences in her praxis when she became an educator to instill a sense of pride through expression in her future students.
Lorde graduated and continued other academic pursuits. She earned her teaching degree at Hunter College; she’d later return to teach there and even fight for the establishment of a Black Studies department. She successfully pursued a Master’s in Library Sciences at Columbia University and later became a librarian. In 1968, Lorde took a residency in Tougaloo College, as well as published The First Cities, her first volume of poetry. She often cited it as influential in her desire to empower the marginalized through education and literary expression, hosting free workshops targeted specifically for students.
Another significant experience in Lorde’s life happened when she met Frances Clayton while at Tougaloo, who also became her partner for much of her life and life-long friend. Lorde’s relationship with the openly-gay Edwin Rollins, her first and only husband, however, was shorter, and ended in divorce in 1970 after the birth of two children named Johnathan and Elizabeth. Lorde would take on other partners throughout the remainder of her life. Namely, Mildred Thompson — who she met while in Nigeria — and Dr. Gloria Joseph, who Lorde later lived with in St. Croix and collaborated with in social justice networks.
Lorde’s academic and literary career was prolific. Two additional volumes of poetry were published after her first: Cables of Rage, and From A Place Where Other People Live, which was nominated for a National Book Award. Her later publications became increasingly political and openly-expressive of her sexuality. Her essays frequently discussed the way these issues intersected and could not be viewed in vacuums, among many other themes in her approach that was shaped by how varied and diverse the experiences of other Feminists she encountered were.
Lorde also participated in several activist initiatives, notably the Afro-German Movement while living in Berlin as a guest professor, which earned her international acclaim. She was a member of the Combahee River Collective, and even co-founded several groups, from the CRC’s Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, which centered Black Feminist writers, to Sisterhood In Support of South Africa, which supported Black women living under apartheid. While living in St. Croix she co-founded the Women’s Coalition of St. Croix, dedicated to addressing relationship abuse and other inequities women faced. She’d also co-found the Che-Lumumba School for Truth, which provided politically-conscious alternatives to standard public education.
Lorde also openly-challenged homophobia and the erasure of race from the lived experiences of Oppression that nonwhite women suffered from in Feminist movements. She critiqued the constant Othering of women who existed in non-western societies, Ageism, elements of Class discrimination, and the “single-issue” approach many of her time had taken to Civil Rights, epitomized in her essay “Learning from the 60s”:
“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives… Our struggles are particular, but we are not alone…What we must do is commit ourselves to some future that can include each other and to work toward that future with the particular strengths of our individual identities.”
Lorde’s works The Cancer Journals — which won the American Library Association’s Gay Caucus Book of the Year Award — and A Burst of Light — which won an American Book Award — both touched on multiple subjects in personal essays, positioned through her experiences as a Disabled woman living with Breast Cancer that also experienced many issues that often intersected with her Blackness. Her refusal to wear a prosthesis that didn’t even match her skintone after a mastectomy was defined as an attempt to resist Sexist, Racist, and Ableist normative standards of womanhood and beauty in the medical industry that silenced the experiences of Disabled women, including Disabled Black women like her. She hoped to build a community through the open acknowledgment of their differences and the struggles that accompanied them.
It was only years after her death in 1992 from Breast Cancer — which had also metastasized and spread to her Liver — that Lorde’s work finally began to be reclaimed as a necessary tool of study in the overwhelmingly-white, heteronormative, and incidentally single-issue sphere of Disability Justice scholarship. She’d write 12 books in total, from poetry to essays that sometimes explored her many identities and openly-challenged those who ignored those issues. Lorde’s essays in A Burst of Light can be found here in the Internet Archive Library, as well as The Cancer Journals and some of her other notable intersectional writings in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches.
Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah
Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah is a Disabled Ghanian activist and Para Cyclist who famously raised awareness about Ableism and advocated tolerance by cycling hundreds of miles. He continued his advocacy for disability acceptance and as an advocate of peace, becoming an international Disabled icon.
Yeboah was born in Koforidua, Ghana. However, Yeboah’s right leg had a missing tibia, essentially making walking impossible. As a result, Yeboah and his family experienced ostracization, reportedly because his disability was believed to be the result of a curse. Yeboah’s mother Comfort struggled to support him, but his father felt ashamed of Yeboah and eventually abandoned the family. Other relatives joined him.
However, Comfort Yeboah refused to accept stigmas about her son and enrolled him into school, carrying him back and forth every day until he grew too heavy to lift. Then, Yeboah spent his time hopping to school, later developing an interest in athletics and sports.
Yeboah was the only disabled student in his school and faced many obstacles as a result of it. He was often teased, bullied, and neglected from participating in the sports he liked, but Yeboah took the counsel his mother gave him and refused to give up. He eventually taught himself how to play soccer with crutches, but dropped out of school to earn a wage for himself after his mother’s health began declining. Thus, Yeboah traveled to Accra, making an income shining shoes for some time, but would have his life changed when his mother passed after battling her illness for years. She had him promise never to allow others to disrespect him because of his disability.
Years spent observing the plight of other Ghanians with disabilities ignited a desire within Yeboah to change cultural perceptions; he chose bicycling as the method he’d use, intending to travel across Ghana. Yeboah then consulted a doctor, who introduced him to the Challenged Athlete Foundation (CAF), and petitioned them for assistance. Yeboah won CAF’s support and received a mountain bike, gear, and monetary funds to assist his mission. The next step involved rigorous training and attempts to seek government support that met incredible resistance.
Yeboah was initially barred from entering the palace because of his condition, but after continued persistence, reportedly became the first Disabled person to be allowed inside. He then successfully convinced the Okyenhene, Osagyefuo Amoatia Ofori Panin, to support him on his mission. Yeboah returned to training and in 2001 he began his bicycle marathon, with the sponsorship of Herbert Mensah.
As part of his journey, Yeboah decided to wear a shirt with the words “The Pozo” inscribed on it, after a slang word that’s believed to have referenced Pozo Hayes, a Disabled Ghanian musician. He began his marathon, visiting various locations as he traversed Ghana. He visited other villages to deliver words of encouragement to those with disabilities, including youth, and Yeboah even gave speeches to local leadership as well as the media, advocating for the respect of the Disabled and changes in Government policies so that they would have the same rights as their able-bodied peers.
Yeboah’s success led to international recognition, as well as the chance to compete in a triathlon overseas. Yeboah took up the offer immediately and was flown to California, where he completed the 56-mile triathlon in seven hours.
In 2003, Yeboah received a prosthetic leg and was finally able to walk without crutches, as well as play football(soccer), swim, as well as run.
He married his wife Elizabeth, later naming his daughter Linda, referencing Loma Linda Orthopedic and Rehabilitation Center, which performed the operation that granted him a prosthetic free of charge — even supplying financial assistance for his family in Ghana — and later continued his advocacy and activism.
Yeboah’s activism in Ghana included the allocations of the thousands earned by sponsors to Disability programs, including one that funded the education of 15 disabled students selected annually for five years. He’d donated hundreds of wheelchairs — now numbering in the thousands total after several years — and he established Emmanuel’s Educational Foundation and Sports Academy, a school for both disabled and able-bodied students specializing in adaptive sports. He’s fought to get thousands of ramps built to increase accessibility, and he, alongside many other disability rights activists in Ghana, saw a major step toward Disability equity with the implementation of the Persons With Disabilities Act in 2006.
Numerous awards, among them a Daasebre Award bestowed by Omanhene Dr. Oti Boateng, awards from CAF, and even an Arthur Ashe Courage Award, haven’t slowed his work toward helping to transform public perceptions of the Disabled worldwide and in Ghana, along with other political measures. Yeboah also participated in the 2016 Ride For Change to Accra, promoting peace and unity, and continues to push for the funding of accessible schools and resources to empower the Disabled. His work was helped in part by an initiative Osagyefuo reportedly implemented in response to Yeboah’s accomplishments. Yeboah has continued playing for the Union’s National Para-Soccer team and expressed interest in pursuing political work for Disability rights.
Barbara C. Jordan
Barbara C. Jordan was a Black and Disabled lawyer, educator, and politician that had the distinction of being both the first Black woman elected to Texas Senate and the first Black Southern-born Congresswoman, serving in the House of Representatives. Known as a skilled-orator since childhood, Jordan is renowned for her speech rallying for Nixon’s impeachment when she served on the House Judiciary Committee. Her other accomplishments would eventually net her the Medal of Freedom and bipartisan acknowledgment for her political contributions to ethics.
Jordan was born February 21st, in 1936 in the Fifth Ward of Houston, Texas. She was the youngest of three daughters, including Bennie and Rose Mary. Her father Benjamin Jordan was a Baptist minister and her mother Arlyne Patten was an active member of the church and public speaker. Raised in segregated schools, Jordan would find the motivation to pursue Law when Edith Sampson delivered a speech at Phillis Wheatley High School, which Jordan attended.
Jordan furthered her studies at Texas Southern, where she excelled on their debate team, and later graduated magna cum laude from Boston University Law School, and set up her own private practice afterward. Her interests eventually shifted to politics. Jordan soon made history in 1966, when she was elected to serve in Texas legislature on her third bid after building her experience campaigning for John F. Kennedy. She’d later earn a seat in the House of Representatives, and history would be made again.
Jordan’s most famous moment during her tenure in office came during her Freshman year as a member of the House Judiciary Committee. In 1974, she delivered the opening remarks to the televised impeachment hearings of Nixon during the Watergate scandal, defending the principles of the Constitution she fervidly believed in and admonishing her peers to do the same:
“If the impeachment provision in the Constitution of the United States will not reach the offenses charged here, then perhaps the eighteenth-century Constitution should be abandoned to a twentieth-century paper shredder.”
Her speech garnered national acclaim, and she continued to be active in Congress, later becoming the first Black keynote speaker at the DNC. Despite the notoriety however, Jordan kept her affairs outside of politics personal. She ended her service in Congress in 1979 with the onset of multiple sclerosis on her last term, publicly attributing her decision to a personal obligation to focus on work in her home state. As a result, Jordan returned to educational pursuits and gained a professorship at Texas University. She wrote her own memoir in the meantime, and later delivered more speeches, including a keynote in 1992 while confined to a wheelchair as her MS and other disabilities progressed.
Her final major position was as a member of the Commission on Immigration Reform. She was honored with the Medal of Freedom in 1994 after a slew of other achievements, from more than a dozen honorary degrees to recognition in the National Women’s Hall of Fame, passing away from pneumonia in part caused by her leukemia in 1996. Only after death was the full extent of the disabilities she wrestled with made public, as well as the nature of her relationship with Nancy Earl, her partner and caretaker she’d known for decades.
Jordan’s life is important to Black Disability History for one basic reason: it reminds us in an Ableist society that the Disabled and/or Neurodiverse have agency, a right to participate in the political process that is often denied or discarded due to our lack of proximity to able-bodiedness and neurotypical standards. We find Ableism manifesting as a bipartisan affair, our lived experiences exploited for hypervisibility in representation, only to see those of us originally championed by them expected to relinquish that right when being such loses convenience for the able-bodied. Given Jordan’s status as a Black and Disabled woman in an institution equally-racist, I have no doubt she would’ve faced similar obstacles, but I won’t speculate further. Jordan engaged in her own way and ultimately, on her own terms, like countless of us are beginning to.
An archive dedicated to Jordan detailing various aspects of her life, including some of her earlier writings, can be found here.
Dr. Nathie Marbury was a Black and Deaf woman who pioneered many leadership opportunities for the Deaf in education. In addition to her work devoted to Deaf scholarship, Dr. Marbury became a well-known advocate for normalizing Deaf culture in an overwhelmingly Audist society.
Commonly-called “Nathie”, Dr. Marbury was born in Grenada, MS (1944) and spent her childhood in Pennsylvania, attending a school for the Deaf in West Pennsylvania. Dr. Marbury later graduated and applied to Gallaudet University, a premier college for the Deaf; she was approved and decided to pursue a degree in Home Economics.
Once Dr. Marbury graduated from Gallaudet, she continued her academic pursuits, eventually transferring to CSUN and earning a Master’s in Administration and Supervision, as well as Special Education. Dr. Marbury continued her studies after graduating from CSUN, completing doctoral coursework at UCLA. In 2007 she finally earned a doctorate in Deaf Studies and Education at Lamar University, and as her history displays, was just as active in extracurricular activities as she was in her pursuit of Deaf-related scholarship.
While at CSUN, Dr. Marbury earned the distinguishment of becoming the first Black and Deaf woman to participate in their National Leadership Training Program centered around the Deaf. She also made history as the first Black and Deaf woman appointed to a leadership position for National Association of the Deaf, as a Member-at-Large, and spent much of her time as an advocate and member associated with the National Black Deaf Advocates organization. She’d make history again as the first Black female instructor of Kendall’s Elementary School for the Deaf, one of many accomplishments during her teaching career.
Dr. Marbury eventually became involved in the educational field, teaching at the American School for the Deaf and would later advance to other positions elsewhere, specializing in ASL and ASL Linguistics. Her distinctive focus on advancing knowledge and understanding of Deaf Culture on a pedagogical level brought with it decades of experience hosting workshops, seminars, and other educational endeavors that bridged the rift between Deaf and Hearing students, both nationally in the Union and internationally through her advocacy in Canada as well. Numerous teaching positions in public schools, universities, and even community colleges further cemented her cultural and educational contributions to Deaf Culture, especially through the arts.
Dr. Marbury often conveyed the experiences of the Deaf to Hearing audiences through retellings of many popular folktales using ASL, not including numerous poems she also performed. Videotapes recording her for companies were dedicated not only to education, contributing to instruction of ASL, but also to showcasing ASL as an Interpretive artform to Hearing audiences. She’d posthumously receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the NBDA, cementing her legacy to the Deaf community and the pioneering of Deaf Culture in general. Examples of her work can be found here for viewing.
Yetnebersh Nigussie is a Blind Ethiopian activist and lawyer whose work has led to dramatically-improving negative perceptions of the disabled by advocating for more inclusive measures. She has also paved the way for women’s health, educational, reproductive rights, and political representation in Ethiopia as well, becoming one of the first three Blind women to pursue Law in a field dominated by men.
Nigussie was born in Sayint, part of Ethiopia’s Amhara region, and lost her vision due to a meningitis infection at five. As a result, Nigussie’s mother and grandmother wanted her to attain an education and sent her to Shashemane school for the Blind.
Once she passed the fifth grade, Nigussie had to attend public school, as Shashemane didn’t have the resources to afford educating their students further. She ended up at Menelik II secondary school, where she was the only Blind student. As a result, Nigussie experienced a lot of ostracism and neglect from other students, who often refused to interact with her. This only ignited a passion within Nigussie to overcome the discrimination and prove she deserved to be treated the same as able-bodied students.
Nigussie became active and chaired several student clubs during her time in secondary school. She eventually decided to pursue a degree in Law once she graduated, attending Addis Ababa University. Nigussie’s activism only blossomed during her time studying, co-founding an Anti-AIDS Movement; founding and serving as the president of the Female Student’s Association; even playing a pivotal role in the creation of a Center for Student’s with Disabilities that spawned similar programs at every Ethiopian university. Her work promoting Women’s rights and Education even resulted in many accolades, including an Amanitare award. Nigussie’s drive for advocacy and activism would continue well after she officially earned her Law degree and a Master’s in Social Work; she’d even pursued another Master’s in Peace and Security studies.
One of the milestones of Nigussie’s activist work — that has included participation in over 20 organizations — came with the establishment of the ECDD (Ethiopian Centre for Disability and Development) with the assistance of the International Labor Organization. The ECDD has served as a program devoted to incorporating accessible and inclusive services devoted to awareness and change on a macrosocial level of both the private and public sector, further buttressed by their focus on ensuring their activism addressed systemic issues. Its emphasis on centering Disabled and/or Neurodiverse members — as well as equal representation genderwise — has ensured the respective groups have agency.
Nigussie eventually served as the Executive Director of the ECDD, and was instrumental in ensuring the UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) was implemented, a policy adopted in 2006 but never enforced until 2010. Combined with the failure of nations to implement Conventions even earlier than the UN CRPD — including children’s rights and another advocating the elimination of discrimination against women, for ex. — Nigussie’s international and even regional advocacy stressed the elimination of an apathy that transcended negative cultural attitudes and was maintained systemically.
The establishment of a center for the African Disability Forum and the growing influence of the ECDD, which expanded to several other Ethiopian regions and had now initiated a policy that rated businesses and buildings on their level of accessibility, were just a few of many ways Nigussie’s work typified this ethic. Nigussie later founded “Yetnebersh Academy” for low income students in Addis Ababa, emphasizing inclusive educational enviroments for the Disabled and/or Neurodiverse, along with an emphasis on empowering young girls. Nigussie had two daughters of her own after marriage, named Ahati and Zema.
Ultimately, Nigussie’s work as a lawyer and activist reflects not only a desire to eradicate prevailing cultural stigmas that lead to Ableism systemically and through education, but also to the intersections of Sexism that further marginalize women with Disabilities. For example, her research found that while men with Disabilities, etc. were treated harshly, women with those identities suffered even worse. Nigussie’s work also reflects a desire to hold societies that make empty promises accountable by encouraging the development of social policy, education, and implementation.
Marsha P. Johnson
Anyone with a cursory awareness of LGBT rights in the Union has heard of Marsha “Pay it no mind” Johnson. They’ve heard about her fearless persona and the stories of Stonewall uprisings she took part in that have now become legend. They’ve even seen classic images of her smile, often adorning flowers on her head. Aside from a throwaway mention that has become standard fare in public tributes, if any are included at all, they haven’t seen the devotion she and myriad LGBT activists during her time also had for rights for the Disabled and/or Neurodiverse, let alone her experience navigating as a Black Disabled and Neurodiverse gender-nonconforming woman.
As her longtime friend Sylvia Rivera noted, Johnson wrestled with a complex condition that caused her to have frequent breakdowns, often affecting her mood and how she interacted with others. She depended on SSI in part for assistance, and in several cases had been institutionalized. Combined with her gender identity and sexuality, Johnson was not merely a person who was Disabled and Neurodiverse, she was also disabled by pseudoscientific methods inflicted upon her — which included shock treatment, exposure to harsh drugs, and psychological coercion. They viewed Marsha’s gayness and transness as abnormal and something needing to be “cured”, in a mental health system that also routinely voided the humanity of its patients and denied them basic rights to healthcare and proper treatment.
Despite her roots in activism essentially evolving through gay movements of her time once Stonewall reached its zeitgeist(including the Gay Liberation Front, for example), there were still cisgays that willfully chose not to associate themselves with her and other transfolk. In some cases, they even banned them from participating in Pride parades. Johnson and her peers instead famously marched far ahead of them, refusing to be erased, and their refusal to kowtow to the heteronormativity and transphobia of their peers was consciously reflected in their social work.
Enter Johnson’s activism as a part of STAR (Streets Transvestites Action Revolutionaries), which her close friend Sylvia Rivera founded and whom were active before the riots. They also collaborated with the GLF, partnering to establish the GCC (Gay Community Center). It was a shelter that was both a safe-haven and collective that addressed myriad lived experiences that also informed gay and trans lives, championing the dismantling of racism, sexism, medical inequity, and the eradication of poverty. STAR also advocated for the establishment of housing, legal protections and food initiatives for children among other issues they focused on.
STAR collaborated heavily with major civil rights groups — even the Black Panthers — as well as staged protests, calling those committed to abusive Psychiatric Centers “prisoners”. STAR fiercely advocated for personal agency for every patient institutionalized, advocating for equal access to healthcare, medication, abortions, contraception, therapy, and the end of the practice of employing sterilizations. These were experiences that were also informed by the lives of many of the Disabled and/or Neurodiverse activists who belonged to the group, including Johnson herself.
Involvement in other activist initiatives like Act Up — centered around HIV/AIDS Awareness — as well as her status as an icon that had even been captured on photo by Andy Warhol himself were tragically cut short. She was found dead in the Hudson River, the circumstances ruled a suicide despite a hostile encounter witnesses had observed taking place sometime prior. It took extensive activism for a change in this ruling to take place.
Johnson’s history is notable not only for her activism and often-downplayed lived experiences in respect to her Disability and Neurodiversity, but also because it illustrates in a vivid fashion the ways that society further disables and dehumanizes us, especially when one is considered deviant from the norms established within it. Her death and the neglect that came with it is especially prescient in a time where trans folk, especially those who are nonwhite trans women, are still being murdered and denied many of the basic rights Johnson fought for. The truth of her multifaceted lived experience as someone Black, Disabled, Neurodiverse, and gender-nonconforming reminds us that the icon, in spite of the frequent adoration she received locally, was ostracized alongside other trans folk from many within the very LGB communities they strove to protect. It’s my hope that as the full spectrum of what she experienced is reconsidered, her legacy is also reclaimed.
I’ve completed another volume in this series chronicling my journey to understand the world, and by extension, myself from a Black Disabled and Neurodiverse lens. Some of these entries were incredibly difficult to write, helped in no small part due to the problems I wrestle with health-wise, which led to this entry being delayed. But it’s here, and that’s what matters most. There are myriad other Histories, Memories, and Narratives I’ve discovered that I hope to share, and as can be seen, they’ve begun to span the globe itself.
The world wishes us to think the fight against Ableism and for Black Liberation exist in separate vacuums, but I hope the figures I’ve shared and will continue to share in the future will prove how inextricably connected we are.
Kasino, Michael(Director). Mitchell, Larry(Producer). (2012) Pay It No Mind: The Life & Times of Marsha P. Johnson.[Doc] San Francisco, Ca: Frameline.
Timmons, Niamh. 2020. “Towards a Trans Feminist Disability Studies.” Journal of Feminist Scholarship 17 (Fall): 46–63. 10.23860/jfs.2020.17.04
Julie Avril Minich, “Enabling Whom? Critical Disability Studies Now,” Lateral 5.1 (2016).