Celebrating Black Disability Rights Advocates!

February 2, 2024

From Camp Jened (or “Crip Camp”) to the Section 504 Sit-Ins and the Capitol Crawl, the disability rights movement has a long and rich history. Retellings of these moments, however, often exclude the many Black activists who made them possible. As the hashtag #DisabilityTooWhite revealed in 2016, this erasure continues today as disability rights efforts overlook the unique needs of people of color with disabilities.

In the months of September and October, we highlighted the stories of important Black disability rights activists on our social media in an effort to center them in our accounts of disability rights history. Today, in honor of Black History Month, we invite you to learn about and celebrate five of these trailblazers.  

Johnnie Lacy

Johnnie Lacy was born in 1937 in the South. She attended segregated public schools in Louisiana until 1947, when she moved to California with her family. At 19, while pursuing a nursing degree, Lacy contracted Polio and became paralyzed. She decided to resume her education in 1980, switching to the field of speech therapy. She faced significant discrimination from the head of the San Francisco State University speech therapy department, who tried to block her admission into the program. Lacy advocated for herself and was eventually allowed to enroll, although she was not allowed to participate in graduation. Experiences such as this one led Lacy to become a prominent figure in the disability rights movement. Throughout her efforts, she centered her intersectional identity as a Black American, a woman, and a person with a disability. She often spoke of the ableism that she faced within the Black community and the racism that she experienced within the white disability community. In 1981, she helped found the Berkeley Center for Independent Living. She further served the disability community as the director of the Community Resources for Independent Living in Hayward, California – a position that she held for more than a decade. Lacy also served on the Hayward’s Commission on Personnel and Affirmative Action, the San Francisco’s Mayor’s Disability Council, and the California Attorney General’s Commission on Disability. She died in 2010 at the age of 73.

Johnnie Lacy
Image source: The Center for Learner Equity

Ever Lee Hairston

     Ever Lee Hairston was born in 1942 on a plantation in North Carolina, where she attended segregated schools and participated in a very segregated public life. She planned on attending nursing school; however, she failed the vision exam required for admittance. Instead, she pursued a teaching degree at North Carolina Central University, where she first became involved with the Civil Rights Movement. At the beginning of her teaching career, Hairston was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic eye disease, and eventually became totally blind. She switched over to a career in counseling but quickly realized that she needed to acquire blindness skills to succeed. This is when the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) reached out to Hairston. With the support of NFB, Hairston spent a year studying at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, where she mastered braille, cane travel, and other essential skills. Hairston continued to work with NBF, mentoring and advocating for blind and visually impaired people. She coordinated NFB’s LEAD program, supporting blind teens learning to navigate independent life. She also served as NFB New Jersey’s first vice president, founded and served as president for the Garden State Chapter of NFB New Jersey, and served as president for NFB California. She is currently on NFB’s board, as well as on the board of directors of the Louisiana Center for the Blind. Hairston continues to share her story (see, for example, her 2017 TEDx Talk and her book) and fight for disability rights in the US.

Ever Lee Hairston
Image source: National Federation for the Blind

Joyce Ardell Jackson

     Joyce Ardell Jackson was born in 1947 in California. At 12, she was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and underwent more than 50 operations in her lifetime. She attended Santa Clara University and graduated in 1973. Jackson joined the disability rights movement early in her career, working with the Center for Independent Living (CIL) in Berkeley. Soon after, in April of 1977, Jackson took part in the 504 Sit-in. The sit-in demanded that the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) properly enforce Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the first federal effort at outlawing discrimination against people with disabilities. After the sit-in, Jackson, along with 19 activists, traveled to DC to pressure HEW officials and the Carter Administration to pass the regulations needed to enforce Act. Following these efforts, HEW Secretary Joseph Califano finally signed the regulations on April 28, 1977. The regulations demanded that all agencies receiving federal funds accommodate people with disabilities, granting them equal access to, among other things, employment, education, and housing. Jackson then served three terms on the national board of the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities, travelling across the US to educate people on the new regulations and disability rights. She passed away in 2013.

Photo of Joyce Ardell Jackson
Image source: Center for Living Equality

Brad Lomax

Brad Lomax was born in Philadelphia in 1950. Firmly committed to Black liberation, Lomax attended Howard University in DC, where he helped found the Black Panther Party’s Washington Chapter and organize the 1972 African Liberation Day demonstrations. During this time, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and began using a wheelchair. His newly discovered disability exposed him to the everyday discrimination that people with disabilities, especially Black Americans with disabilities, face in the US. This reality led Lomax to join the disability rights movement and build connections between the Black Panthers and disability rights advocates. Later on, Lomax and his attendant, Chuck Jackson, took part in the Section 504 sit-in. They secured support for the protest from the Black Panthers, who provided the demonstrators with food and other necessities. In the words of demonstrator Corbett O’Toole, “Without the presence of Brad Lomax and Chuck Jackson, the Black Panthers would not have fed the 504 participants occupying the H.E.W. building. Without that food, the sit-in would have collapsed.” After the sit-in, like Jackson, Lomax also traveled to DC to place continued pressure on HEW and the Carter Administration. In the years that followed, Lomax worked with the Black Panthers and eventually passed away from complications of multiple sclerosis in 1984.

Overlooked No More: Brad Lomax, a Bridge Between Civil Rights Movements -  The New York Times

Image source: New York Times

Lois Curtis

     Lois Curtis was born in 1967 in Georgia. At a young age, she was diagnosed with cognitive and developmental disabilities, which made it difficult for her parents to provide her with the support that she needed. Curtis became a patient at Georgia Regional Hospital at the age of eleven, beginning her nearly two decades of institutionalization. At 19, Curtis started advocating for her release. Despite Curtis receiving permission from the hospital to transition to community living, the state of Georgia refused to pay for the support that she would have needed to do so. Years later, she became a plaintiff in one of the most important cases in disability rights history: Olmstead v. L.C. While institutionalized, Curtis met Atlanta Legal Aid Society attorney Sue Jamieson, who took Curtis’ plight for independent living to the Supreme Court. The case argued that, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the state of Georgia was responsible for providing people with disabilities with the necessary services to live in their communities. The Court ruled in Curtis’ favor, recognizing what is now understood as people with disabilities’ right to live in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs. This case set a new standard of care for people with disabilities in the US, serving as the basis of their ongoing fight for their right to community living. After the case, Curtis finally transitioned to community living with state-funded support services. She became a visual artist, focusing on bold colors and portraits, and organized several art exhibits with a 2004 Department of Labor grant. In 2011, Curtis visited the White House and presented President Obama with one of her paintings, Girl in Orange Dress. In 2022, she passed away due to pancreatic cancer at the age of 55.

Landmark disability rights figure Lois Curtis dies : NPR
Image source: NPR

These activists have served the disability rights movement in indispensable ways that deserve to be recognized and celebrated. We limited our article to five activists to provide more extensive detail on each one, but this is by no means a comprehensive list. Check out these pieces on prominent Black disability rights activists:

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