5 women with disabilities who made history
Many people tend to look down on women with disabilities. They think that these women have nothing to offer the world because of their disabilities. How wrong they were! These women didn’t wait for things to be handed over to them because of their disabilities, they rose to the challenge and made a name for themselves through their determination and doggedness.
It was either live the way others expected them to or fight for the lives they knew they deserved. Even though they faced discrimination, these women didn’t give up on pursuing their passion and living their dreams. Women with disabilities face discrimination at different points and at different places. But these women and many others made sure things changed for others coming behind.
The women who made history are Jillian Mercado, Stella Young, Claudia Gordon, Judy Heumann and Dr. Maya Angelou — are all examples of women who have made major contributions to everything from politics to literature to activism and made the world a better place for everyone.
Dr. Maya Angelou (1928-2014) is known for her incredible writing, such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. But some people don’t know that Maya Angelou had selective mutism.
She was abused and sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend as a child, and when she spoke up, he was convicted, released, and then found dead. “The fear that her voice could be used for harm triggered a period of selective mutism.”
Selective mutism is a form of anxiety disorder marked by a child’s discomfort in speaking in certain environments or situations. In Maya’s case, she refused to utter a word for five years.
Though the source of her selective mutism was devastating, it was the silent years where her admiration for books and literature grew; and skillful listening, observing, and memorizing abilities flourished.
Maya’s sharing of her experience with selective mutism displayed that speaking and silence are compelling actions within their own rights. Neither is weaker or stronger than the other; both can be used to make a statement that grips us long after the moment is over.
Jillian Mercado was born on April 30, 1987. She is an American fashion model represented by IMG Models. As a wheelchair user (due to muscular dystrophy), she is one of the few professional models who has a physical disability in the fashion industry.
Mercado is a prominent figure in the new wave of models challenging beauty ideals in the fashion industry. She is keen to fight the lack of representation of people with disabilities in the fashion industry and their enduring stigma.
In 2014, Mercado featured in her first campaign, for designer denim brand Diesel. She was selected by Nicola Formichetti. Its success captured the attention of IMG Models President Ivan Bart and landed her a modeling contract with IMG in August 2015.
She has since starred in several campaigns for Nordstrom as well as in former Vogue Paris editor Carine Roitfeld’s CR Fashion Book where she was photographed by Michael Avedon.
In March 2016, Mercado was announced as one of three models to appear in the latest campaign for Beyonce’s official website, promoting merchandise for the singer’s new single and 2016 Formation world tour.
In September 2016, Mercado appeared in the editorial features of Glamour Magazine and Cosmopolitan Magazine. By the end of that year, Mercado appeared on her first cover for Posture Magazine. In February 2017, Mercado appeared in an editorial for Galore magazine.
Stella Jane Young (24 February 1982 – 6 December 2014) was an Australian comedian, journalist and disability rights activist.
Young was born at Stawell, Victoria in 1982. She was born with osteogenesis imperfecta and used a wheelchair for most of her life. When she was 14, she audited the accessibility of the main street businesses of her hometown.
She held a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and Public Relations from Deakin University, Geelong and a Graduate Diploma in Education from the University of Melbourne.
After graduating in 2004, Young worked for a time as a secondary school teacher. She served as the editor for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s online magazine, Ramp Up.
Before joining the ABC, Young had worked as an educator in public programs at Melbourne Museum and hosted eight seasons of No Limits, a disability culture program on community television station Channel 31.
Having previously appeared in several comedy showcases and group shows, Stella made her festival debut as a solo performer at the 2014 Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Her show Tales from the Crip, directed by Nelly Thomas won her the award for best newcomer at the festival.
She was a member of the boards of the Ministerial Advisory Council for the Department of Victorian Communities, Victorian Disability Advisory Council, the Youth Disability Advocacy Service and Women with Disabilities Victoria.
In 2017, Young was inducted posthumously onto the Victorian Honour Roll of Women in recognition of her work as a “journalist, comedian, Feminist and fierce disability activist”.
Claudia L. Gordon is the first deaf black female attorney in the United States. She currently works in the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. Gordon previously held a position in the White House Office of Public Engagement as the Public Engagement Advisor to the Disability Community for less than a year.
She is also the first deaf person to work at the White House in an detailee capacity. In an interview, she makes a point that there was a deaf intern working in the White House before her, and that there are currently other deaf people working in less prestigious positions in the White House.
She was born in Jamaica. After having sharp pains in her ears, her aunt, who took care of her at the time, took her to a small clinic as there were no hospitals but she was deaf at the age of eight. She didn’t believe she was deaf because she had been reading peoples lip and thought she was hearing their voice.
She faced discrimination in Jamaica because she was deaf. When she was 11, she moved to the United States and enrolled at the Lexington School for the Deaf in New York. She was happy to move there because she wasn’t receiving any education in Jamaica.
Gordon graduated from Howard University in 1995 with a bachelor of arts in political science. At Howard, she was a Patricia Robert Harris Public Affairs Fellow, member of the Golden Keys National Honor Society, and member of the Political Science Honor Society.
She received the Skadden Fellowship for law graduates working with disabled people. This paid for her to work at the National Association of the Deaf Law and Advocacy Center. This allowed her to provide, “Direct representation and advocacy for poor deaf persons with a particular emphasis on outreach to those who are members of minority groups.”
Next, she became a consultant to the National Council on Disability and joined the Department of Homeland Security. At Homeland Security Gordon is the senior policy advisor for the Department of Homeland Security, the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.
Claudia Gordon has been active in both the black deaf community and the disability community. She was the vice president of the National Black Deaf Advocates. She is also associated with the National Coalition for Disability Rights.
Judith E. “Judy” Heumann was born in 1947. She is an American disability rights activist. Heumann is a lifelong civil rights advocate for people with disabilities and an internationally recognized leader in the disability community.
Her work with governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) has produced significant contributions since the 1970s to the development of human rights legislation and policies benefiting children and adults with disabilities.
Through her work in the World Bank and the State Department, Heumann led the mainstreaming of disability rights into international development. Her contributions extended the international reach of the independent living movement.
Heumann’s commitment to disability rights stems from her personal experiences. She had polio at the age of 18 months, and has used a wheelchair most of her life. Heumann had to fight repeatedly to be included in the educational system.
The local public school refused to allow her to attend, calling her a fire hazard. Heumann’s mother, a community activist in her own right, challenged the decision, and Judy was allowed to go to school in the fourth grade.
She attended Camp Jened in Hunter, New York, a summer camp for teenagers with disabilities. It was there that she met Bobbi Linn and Freida Tankus, who she would later work with as disability rights activists.
Judy Heumann began making major moves toward rights for people with disabilities in college, organizing rallies and protests with other students with disabilities. When she got out of school and was denied her New York teaching license because the board did not believe she could get herself or her students out of the building in case of a fire, she took the case to court.
After the judge recommended that New York City’s Board of Education rethink its decision, Heumann became the first person in a wheelchair to teach in New York City and taught elementary school there for three years.
In 1970, Heumann and several friends with disabilities founded Disabled in Action, an organization that focused on securing the protection of people with disabilities under civil rights laws.
While serving as a legislative assistant to the chairperson of the U. S Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare in 1974 she helped develop legislation that became the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. An early leader in the independent living movement, she then moved to Berkeley where she served as deputy director of the Center for Independent Living.
Heumann co-founded the World Institute on Disability with Ed Roberts and Joan Leon in 1983, serving as co-director until 1993. She served in the Clinton Administration as Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services at the US Department of Education from 1993 to 2001.
From 2002 to 2006 she served as the World Bank Group’s first Advisor on Disability and Development, leading the World Bank’s work on disability and worked to expand the Bank’s knowledge and capability to work with governments and civil society on including disability in the Bank discussions with client countries, its country-based analytical work, and support for improving policies, programs, and projects that allow disabled people around the world to live and work in the economic and social mainstream of their communities.
She was Lead Consultant to the Global Partnership for Disability and Development. She was the Director of the Department of Disability Services for the District of Columbia, but in 2010 became the Special Advisor on Disability Rights for the US State Department under President Barack Obama.
She appears in the 2011 disability rights documentary Lives Worth Living.