Black History Month: 8 Influential Black Americans with Disabilities
Black History Month 2023: Shining a Light on 8 Influential Black Americans with Disabilities
Let’s come together to celebrate Black History Month. This year, we’re covering eight influential Black Americans who are making a difference in the lives of people with disabilities. From heroes of the past to trailblazers of the present, get to know the pivotal role they play in shaping American history.
February is Black History Month, an integral part of American history, and a great time to recognize and celebrate the history and legacies of Black American culture.
The theme of “Black Resistance” takes center stage during this year’s Black History Month. In this blog, we’re showcasing the courage, resilience, and strength displayed by Black Americans in the face of systemic injustice and oppressive rhetoric.
Let’s get to know the powerful stories of eight Black Americans with disabilities who have overcome obstacles and made their mark on history, shaping an equitable, more inclusive world for all.
Tracing the Roots: Origins of Black History Month
Black History Month was established in 1915 by historian Carter G. Woodson and minister Jesse E. Moorland. It was not until the late 1960s that the month of celebration took hold, with President Gerald Ford officially recognizing Black History Month in 1976. It is a time to honor Black American contributions and legacies in all areas of endeavor, from activists and artists to industry leaders.
The Past: 4 Black Americans With Disabilities Who Reshaped History
1. Harriet Tubman, Legendary Poet and Icon for Civil Rights
“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”
– Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman was born in Maryland in 1820. A former slave known for her bravery and leadership as an abolitionist and conductor on the Underground Railroad, Tubman made 13 perilous trips to free 70 enslaved individuals and earned the nickname “Moses”.
Harriet Tubman’s epilepsy was a major part of her personal story.
Between 1834 – 1836, historical accounts mark Harriet’s first act of defiance at the Bucktown General Store in Maryland.
While purchasing goods for the farm she was hired out at, Harriet reportedly refused to help an overseer restrain another enslaved individual, a field hand. In a noble effort to protect the field hand, Harriet blocked the shop’s doorway but the overseer had picked up a two-pound weight and intended to throw it at the field hand but fell short, and hit Harriet’s head instead.
This incident caused a traumatic brain injury that resulted in epileptic seizures and hypersomnia.
During the Civil War, Harriet served as a nurse, cook, and spy for the Union army and continued to fight for civil rights and equality after the war, including advocating for women’s suffrage.
She passed away in 1913, leaving behind a legacy of strength, courage, and perseverance.
Today, she is remembered in various American memorials and museums, including the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park in Maryland. The U.S. Treasury Department announced in 2016 that her likeness will soon be appearing on the $20 bill, replacing that of Andrew Jackson.
2. Sojourner Truth, A Powerful Voice for Abolition, Temperance, and Women’s Rights
“Life is a hard battle anyway. If we laugh and sing a little as we fight the good fight of freedom, it makes it all go easier. I will not allow my life’s light to be determined by the darkness around me.”
– Sojourner Truth
Sojourner Truth was a former slave who became a powerful voice in the abolition movement, known for her speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” which was a demand for action and equality.
Born Isabella Bomfree in 1797 in New York, she was subjected to harsh labor and violent punishments before she escaped slavery in 1827. In New York City, she worked for a minister and participated in religious revivals, becoming a charismatic speaker. In 1843, she declared herself to be a preacher of truth, renaming herself Sojourner Truth.
Sojourner Truth raised funds for her speaking engagements through photographs of her likeness, one of which showed her with knitting needles. However, according to historical accounts, she couldn’t actually use the knitting needles because of a hand injury. It was necessary for her to hide her disability, however, because disability was perceived as a moral failing and something that needed to be fixed to have value.
Sojourner Truth remains a beacon of the struggle for justice and equity, encouraging upcoming generations to persist in their endeavors toward universal rights.
3. Thomas Wiggins, Blind Musical & Piano Virtuoso
Thomas Wiggins was a 19th-century Black American musician and composer known for his remarkable piano virtuosity. Born into slavery in Georgia, he was blind from birth and may have had autism.
The Wiggins family, including young Tom, were bought by the wealthy Bethune family. While Tom was not put to work because of his disability, General James Neil Bethune learned that Wiggins was a naturally gifted pianist. Wiggins began performing at the age of six and became famous for his imitations of bird calls, trains, and other sounds of nature incorporated into his musical works. He was even invited to perform at the White House by President Buchanan when he was 11-years-old. During the Civil War, he composed “The Battle of Manassas,” a song evoking the sounds of battle.
His young age, status as a slave, and level of emotional development made him vulnerable to exploitation, including by the Bethune family who became his legal guardian after abolition, controlling his income and managing his career. Historical accounts suggest that the money the Bethune family made from Tom’s talents was used to support the Confederacy.
Throughout his life, he became one of the most sought-after musicians in America, and famous writers such as Mark Twain and John Steinbeck attended his shows and chronicled his life and works. His compositions embody 19th-century romanticism with a great range of emotion and narrative detail, yet any original recordings of his work that may have existed, have been lost to time.
Wiggins died in 1908 in Hoboken, New Jersey. His musical genius and contributions cannot be denied.
4. Malcolm X, Civil Rights Leader & Fearless Voice of Black Nationalism
“I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being, first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”
― Malcolm X
Malcolm X was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement and Black Nationalism who gained national prominence through his charismatic speeches and sermons.
He was born in 1925 as Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, the son of a Baptist preacher. After a difficult childhood and involvement in crime, he discovered the Nation of Islam while in prison and became a minister upon his release.
Malcolm X was a man known for his exceptional oratory skills and charisma, but what many don’t know is that he had dyslexia, making it difficult for him to read and write. Nevertheless, he taught himself to read and write while in prison and went on to pen a bestselling book, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” which continues to inspire generations.
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The Present: 4 Black Americans With Disabilities Reshaping The Future
1. Simone Biles, Olympic Champion with ADHD
“We can push ourselves further. We always have more to give.”
– Simone Biles
Simone Biles is a 2016 Olympic gymnastics champion and the first female gymnast to win four consecutive all-around world titles since the 1970s. She has won an eye-popping 14 world championship medals.
At the age of six, Simone was diagnosed with ADHD and today serves as a powerful voice for those with both invisible and visible disabilities.
More than the awards and medals she gained for her athletic abilities, her decision to withdraw from the 2020 Olympics for mental health reasons speaks to the larger issue of society’s tendency to measure success through achievements.
Simone took a “loss” to achieve an even greater gain with her mental health and opened up the conversation around the emotional and mental toll of competing. Her story highlights how important it is to take care of oneself and is a shining example of courage and strength.
2. Missy Elliot, Award-Winning Female Hip Hop Icon Turning Trauma to Triumph
“It’s funny, because for females in general – not just in music, but the corporate ladder as well – anything we do has always been harder for us. When it comes to music, the industry wants you to conform, to look like this and to sound like this and do this or that. It makes it harder. It’s harder for us to come out and be bosses and lead the pack.”
– Missy Elliott
Missy Elliott, the 51-year-old businesswoman, rapper, and Grammy Award winner, was born and raised in Virginia under challenging circumstances. Her childhood was marked by significant trauma, but by the early 1990s, she had become a Platinum-selling artist.
At the peak of her career in 2008, Elliott experienced a startling and alarming weight loss, sparking criticism from both fans and the media. She was diagnosed with Graves’ disease, an incurable autoimmune disorder that causes a range of symptoms, including hair loss, tremors, muscle weakness, and bulging eyes.
Her condition hindered her from continuing to make music for years, “I couldn’t write because my nervous system was so bad – I couldn’t even use a pen,” she recounts in an interview.
Elliott had to take a step back from her career in order to focus on her recovery, which included radiation and medication. Through nutrition, exercise, and ongoing treatments, she has learned to live with and manage her disease.
In 2011, Elliott returned to the music scene, surprising fans with collaborations with Katy Perry and Michelle Obama.
3. Clarence Page, Pulitzer-Prize Winning Journalist & Disability Advocate
“If we are to prevent the fabric of our society from coming apart, we must teach our children to excel not only academically, but also in their appreciation of their obligation to others.”
– Clarence Page
Clarence Page is a highly accomplished journalist, Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist for the Tribune Network, a member of the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board, and a frequent contributor to various news programs.
Clarence, who has ADHD, believes his condition has helped him become a successful journalist. He encourages those with a similar diagnosis to use their condition as a “floor for their opportunities, not a ceiling for their abilities”.
He is also a vocal advocate for people with disabilities and works to reduce the stigma surrounding ADHD. He knows that life can be challenging for children with ADHD and strives to make it easier for them to reach their full potential.
Along with 17 personalities spanning various industries and careers, Clarence was featured in the book, “Positively ADD”, saying that, ‘people expect [children with ADHD] to act and learn in a certain way, but they don’t. They have to fight to figure out who they are and what they need.”
4. Daymond John, Multi-Millionaire Clothing Mogul & “Shark Tank” Star
“I’m dyslexic too, and look at where we’re at. You can do it too.”
– Draymond John
Born on February 23, 1969, in Queens, New York, Daymond John has made an indelible mark as an American businessman, investor, and television personality. Daymond founded The Shark Group and serves as one of the five investors on ABC’s Shark Tank.
John launched his successful clothing line FUBU in the 1990s and gained instant popularity when LL Cool J sported a FUBU hat in a Gap commercial. This led to a distribution deal with Samsung, and the company made $350 million in sales in 1998, positioning John as a business guru, branding specialist, and “Godfather of Urban Fashion.”.
As a child, he found it difficult to read and write. Professionals diagnosed him with a learning disability, but it wasn’t until 1999 that he received an official diagnosis of dyslexia after a friend encouraged him to seek help. Since then, he has been vocal about his dyslexia, speaking about it in events, interviews, and social media. He has also been diagnosed with a hearing disorder and uses assistive technology to manage his hearing loss.
Celebrate Black History Month Through Award-Winning Inclusion & Behavior Support Training from Kids Included Together (KIT)
This year’s theme, “Black Resistance” serves as a powerful reminder that the responsibility of achieving true inclusion and equal rights for all can’t fall solely on the individual. It is imperative that systems, organizations, and governments support this fight by creating more accessible environments and challenging stigmas surrounding disabilities and other marginalized communities.
This Black History Month, let’s come together to promote inclusion in our schools, programs, and communities by amplifying the voices of those who came before us, and those who are paving the way for a more inclusive world for all kids.
Start your staff’s inclusion training with a globally-recognized leader in inclusive education and behavior support to ensure all kids in your program are meaningfully included. Browse services and resources designed to fit your needs:
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