African Americans' Influence On Rights for Individuals with Disabilities

February 9th, 2019

It is important to remember our past as to not repeat it in the future. Today, we have a whole month dedicated to both Black History (February) and Disability Awareness (October). However, there are many people alive today who experienced a time in which African Americans and individuals with disabilities did not get to experience equal rights and freedom in their own country. Black History Month was established 43 years ago in 1976 while Disability Awareness Month was established 31 years ago in 1988.

Prior to the civil rights movements, the segregation of African Americans and individuals with disabilities was considered a merciful action, but ultimately served to keep them hidden from a fearful and biased society.

African Americans were separated from their families, brought to the United States to be sold as slaves, and forced into hard labor. Whether they were working or in public, slaves suffered physical abuse and torture, since the government allowed it. 

Individuals with disabilities were considered unfit to contribute to society, except to serve as ridiculed objects of entertainment in circuses and exhibitions; they were also forced to enter institutions and asylums, where many spent their entire lives. It was common for babies with disabilities to be abandoned on the streets to perish.

African-Americans influence on communities to push for equal rights to all and to recognize those who are already doing amazing things, despite their disability or race, is paramount to today’s culture.

In June 1905, a group led by the first African American to obtain a college degree, W.E.B. Du Bois, met at Niagara Falls, sparking a protest to demand civil rights for African Americans. As America’s growing urban population led to shortages of employment and housing, violence towards African Americans had increased around the country - lynching, though illegal, was a widespread practice. A wave of race riots lent a sense of urgency to the Niagara Movement and its supporters, who in 1909 joined forces with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). 

The NAACP’s goals were to abolish all forced segregation, enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments, and establish equal education for blacks and whites. The organization was first established in Chicago and expanded to more than 400 locations by 1921. Du Bois edited the NAACP’s official magazine, The Crisis, from 1910 to 1934, publishing many of the leading voices in African American literature and politics and helping fuel the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. 
The Harlem Renaissance is considered a golden age in African American culture. People connected their expressions in writings, music, and art as they related to the political, social, and economic conditions of being black in America. Black-owned magazines and newspapers flourished, freeing African Americans from the constricting influences of mainstream white society.

It was the long and shameful history of discrimination and oppression that set the stage for the African American civil rights movement which paved the way for the disability rights movement. In 1935, one year after the Harlem Renaissance, the League of the Physically Handicapped in New York City was created to protest discrimination by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). All job applications from individuals with disabilities were being stamped by the Home Relief Bureau with the letters “PH,” which stood for "physically handicapped." These applications were then discarded and not considered in the hiring process. Members of the League held a sit-in at the Home Relief Bureau for nine days and a weekend sit-in at the WPA headquarters. These actions eventually led to the creation of 1,500 jobs in New York City.

Disability rights advocates saw the opportunity to legislate change that would put an end to centuries of negative stereotypes and eliminate barriers to inclusion for all in American society. Advocates began to break societal barriers by securing modest legislative victories. In 1990, the United States Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to eliminate discriminatory barriers against individuals with disabilities. 

Painted during the Harlem Renaissance, Les Fetiches by Loïs Mailou Jones, is pictured in the book Art In Time which explains that painting served as a mouthpiece by which African-Americans expressed racial pride.

Black history shaped, and continues to shape how African Americans and individuals with disabilities lead independent, self-affirming lives and are defined according to their personhood - their ideas, beliefs, hopes, and dreams - above and beyond their race and disability.

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