By Donna Walton, Ed.D., Founder of The Divas With Disabilities Project and LEGGTalk, Inc
Black people with disabilities— yesterday and today – have made significant contributions throughout American history, contributing to the growth and strength of our nation in countless recorded and unrecorded ways.
I had no idea that there was such rich history in America surrounding Black people who also happen to live with disability. Though in most cases, many Black narratives of people who lived with disability have been either erased or untold, some have been maintained, archived and curated by collectors and museums around the U.S.
Take for example Thomas Wiggins, also known as Blind Tom, who was born into slavery an autistic savant and lived a monumental life. When he was a toddler, Tom had an affinity for noise and was capable of echoing any sound he heard. It was when he was four that he happened upon his master’s piano, taking delight from the melody it made, and was constantly found playing with the instrument despite always being removed from it. The realization that Tom was gifted and that his talents needed to be nurtured gained him entry him into the plantation house to learn how to play. He sold out performances in Georgia at age six, and by the age of eight, he was hired out to Perry Oliver, as a part of his freak show, which was frequently visited by Mark Twain. He was advertised as the “gorgon with angel wings” because he would go from a state of agitation to sereneness once he began to play. Wiggins would go on to become the first black performer invited to the White House, performing for President James Buchanan.
Disability history was made on the leadership landscape in 1975 by Johnnie Lacy, a woman born into poverty and a polio survivor, who directed the Disability Law Resource Center at the Center for Independent Living (CRIL) in Hayward, California for over a decade. During the late 70s and early 80s, Johnnie Lacey succeeded in bringing the issue of disability rights to the Community Service Administration and its agencies through training and outreach. Two of the most notable examples of her leadership are evident in the Las Vegas and San Bernardino programs.
As we commemorate this Black History Month, let us not only remember those who braved the abolitionist movement, the emancipation movement, the industrial labor movement and the social change movement … but let us celebrate the magic of intersection— of living black and disabled— and being inclusive of the accomplishments of countless African American contemporaries, like myself, living with disabilities and making history every day.
By honoring these trailblazers, we set a standard for ourselves and shed a beacon of light on disability as the new black history for future generations to come.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
In 1976, Donna R. Walton’s life was transformed when she was diagnosed with a life-threatening form of bone cancer called osteogenic sarcoma. At the age of 18, she received the devastating news that she had to undergo chemotherapy treatments and sacrifice her left leg above the knee to prevent the cancer from spreading. She feared for her life, her health and her dreams. But since losing her leg and deciding to stop her chemotherapy treatments more than four decades ago, Walton has reinvented herself and attained personal and professional success—having triumphed over her fears of deficiency and death to discover her assets within and her power to thrive.
Walton earned her bachelor’s degree in 1979 from American University, a master’s degree in adult education in 1985 from Syracuse University and a doctoral degree in counseling in 2005 from The George Washington University. As a certified cognitive behavioral therapist, Walton is the founder of LEGGTalk, Inc., a company that motivates and empowers individuals to conquer their personal limitations (real and perceived) and achieve their vision of success.