Did you know it is estimated that nearly six million African Americans in the United States today live with a disability? Disabilities can be intellectual, physical, developmental, or acquired.
Many people with disabilities face significant challenges when seeking social assistance, getting an education, and finding long-term employment. These obstacles sometimes lead to feelings of discouragement that they are fighting a system that is biased against them. However, there are many people that have overcome biases and made history.
In honor of Black History month, here are five famous African Americans who have risen up despite living with a disability.
Harriet Tubman is a famous political activist most known for her work on the Underground Railway, the secret network used to help African Americans trapped as enslaved people in the American South. What is less known about her is that she had severe epilepsy, having received a severe head trauma in childhood at the hands of a slave owner. She would be reminded of this event for the rest of her life, living with seizures, debilitating headaches, and loss of consciousness. She refused to let this prevent her from carrying out her important work and even refused anesthesia during an operation to help relieve her of her symptoms.
Muhammad Ali became world heavyweight champion at 22 and participated in some of the most famous fights of the century. However, his outstanding success was found in working through his academic challenges. Ali struggled to even finish high school due to severe dyslexia. Determined to improve the literacy of young African Americans, he used his struggles as inspiration. With the help of his wife, he created magazines and books aimed at young people with disabilities to help motivate and inspire them to better themselves.
Rapper, singer, songwriter, and producer Missy Elliot escaped an abusive home with her mother at age 14. She displayed an interest in music from a very young age, forming an R&B group in the early 90s. In 2008 fans accused her of extreme dieting, causing her to reveal that her skeletal appearance was due to Graves disease. This autoimmune condition weakened her to the point where she could not hold a pen and was diagnosed after a severe car crash due to leg spasms brought on by the condition.
Haben Girma’s mother escaped war-torn Eritrea in the early 1980s, escaping secretly to Sudan. The journey was fraught with danger, causing her to spend nights hiding in trees from the hungry hyenas circling her below. She was determined to escape and create a better future for her children, settling in California in the late 80s. Girma was born with a progressive condition that caused her to lose her hearing and retain only 1% of her eyesight. She grew up to become a passionate advocate of disability rights, becoming the first deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law in 2013 and be featured in the Forbes “30 under 30”.
Simone Biles skyrocketed to fame during the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janerio. She is one of the most decorated gymnasts of all time, with 32 Olympic and World Championship medals under her belt at only 24 years old. Becoming a household name overnight caused her to experience intense speculation and interest from the media, leading to a leak of private medical records in 2016. They revealed that she was taking methylphenidate, otherwise known as Ritalin, at the time of competing. As a response, Biles disclosed that she was diagnosed with ADHD during childhood and that “it was nothing to be ashamed of.”