1869: Elizabeth Ware Packard, who was institutionalized against her will, successfully lobbies for Illinois’ law granting asylum inmates a trial before institutionalization
Elizabeth Ware Packard (1816-1897) is considered one of the first ex-insane asylum inmate activists in the U.S. In 1860, Packard was locked in an insane asylum on the grounds that she disagreed with her husband’s religious views, parenting techniques, and support of slavery. After three years in Jacksonville Insane Asylum and a court case, she was declared sane. From that point forward she advocated for reformed committal procedures of and better living conditions in insane asylums and for the legal protection of married women. After successfully lobbying on behalf of an Illinois law granting asylum inmates the right to a jury trial before confinement in 1869, Packard toured the country advocating for similar legislation (see her “Open Letter to the Legislatures of Nebraska, Kansas, and Colorado”).
Throughout her activism, Packard argued that unconventional thinkers were often considered mad, raised awareness about the cruel conditions of asylums, and demonstrated that ex-asylum inmates could advocate for themselves and others. However, her published writings often focused on the plight of married women. In Modern Persecution, Packard argues that “it is [married women’s] legal position of nonentity, which renders us so liable and exposed to suffering and persecution.” She used her own story to illuminate the suffering of women at the hands of their husbands, due not only to physical violence, but “the usurpation of our natural rights.”
Further Reading: Modern Persecution, or Insane Asylums Unveiled by Elizabeth Packard (1875), Elizabeth Packard: A Noble Fight by Linda V. Carlisle (2010), and The Private Wars of Mrs. Packard (1991)
1893: Agatha Tiegel Hanson becomes the first woman to graduate from Gallaudet University and delivers the Presentation Day speech on women’s rights to education
Agatha Tiegel Hanson (1873-1959), poet and deaf and women’s rights advocate, was the first woman to graduate from Gallaudet College and a model for deaf woman during her lifetime. Tiegel’s activism began while in school—she was part of the second class of women admitted—with the creation of O.W.L.S. (now Phi Kappa Zeta), a secret society for women. In her Gallaudet commencement address, “The Intellect of Woman,” Tiegel argues for the education of all women. While she makes no overt reference to the education of deaf women, most likely because of the setting of the speech, Tiegel’s advocacy for deaf women’s education was revolutionary for her time.
In “The Intellect of Woman,” Tiegel presents a highly progressive stance that women are limited by cultural factors, rather than biological inferiority (a popular position during this time). She begins by stating that society is “so accustomed to behold [women] in a stage of development so far below her powers that we do not apprehend the full evil of these circumstances.” Tiegel goes on to argue that gendering begins “before she leaves the cradle” and that women’s intellect is not absent, but only rendered invisible due to “neglect of use and tardiness of development.” However, Tiegel does note that, despite this oppression, women have silently contributed throughout history: “It is impossible to establish the immensity of the influence that woman’s mind has exerted on the history of the world, an influence silently wielded and never obtruded, but of a potency inferior to no other.”
Tiegel’s speech predicts many of the arguments for women’s rights that would follow and rejects the contemporary view of the cult of domesticity to argue that women should be incorporated into all spheres of life. For a full transcript and re-enactment of her speech, visit here in the ASL dictionary.
Further Reading: “Visionary Leader: Agatha Tiegel Hanson” from Gallaudet University (2014)
1915: Alice T. Terry speaks at the Convention of the National Association of the Deaf advocating for sign language and deaf leadership
Alice T. Terry (1878-1950) was a prolific writer and deaf activist who championed sign language, rejected the notion of Oralism, or the method of teaching deaf children to use spoken language and read lips; and argued for deaf leadership of Gallaudet College and other national organizations. “Our Pursuit of Happiness,” her address to National Association of the Deaf in 1915, highlights Terry’s belief in the betterment, through independence, of the deaf community. Although Terry was not a voting member of the organization because of her gender, her leadership role in Deaf organizations was pioneering at the time for both deaf men and women.
Terry opens her address by emphasizing the need for a visible and happy deaf community because others “will like us infinitely better if we can impress upon them that, despite our affliction, we are constantly seeking our own betterment.” Terry then argues that the teaching of sign language and deaf leadership are essential components to building an independent deaf community. Deaf leadership, particularly in education, is essential: “These Boards are in truth usually made up of persons who do not KNOW the deaf; cannot know their needs, and who are not altogether to blame if they, through misinformation, are misshaping the destiny of our schools.” Terry then asserts her support for the term “mute” as a rejection of oralism and rejoicing of deaf life before returning to the theme of happiness. Click here for a full version of her speech.
Ultimately, Terry’s insistence on deaf independence and upward mobility led her to distance deafness from other disabilities or defects. Unlike Tiegel, who avoided arguments of women’s domesticity and motherhood, Terry emphasized the importance of deaf mother- and wifehood, at one point criticizing the practice of marrying outside the deaf community. According to disability historian Susan Burch, Terry’s maternal approach to deaf women’s cultural importance still resonates today.
Further Reading: “An Autobiography of My Childhood” in The Silent Worker by Alice T. Terry (1920) and Signs of Resistance by Susan Burch (2002)
1927: Helen Keller speaks during the Lions International Week for the Blind, part of her work with the American Foundation for the Blind
Helen Keller (1880-1968), by far the most well-known woman featured here, remains a prominent symbol of disability and disability activism. As iconic as Keller is, historian Kim E. Nielsen argues, her life and legacy are far more complex than widely recognized. For instance, Keller held radical political views—a socialist, suffragist, and supporter of the NAACP—that the public ignored, preferring to think of her as apolitical and eternally childlike. Her legacy has also been recast as a narrative of overcoming disability, which limited Keller’s options during her lifetime and created a singular path for others with disabilities.
Rising to fame for her use of fingered speech, Keller leveraged her childhood notoriety to advocate for the blind throughout her life. In her speech to the Knights of the Blind in 1927, Keller stresses the commonalities between the blind and the sighted. By asking the audience to imagine themselves suddenly blinded, but still themselves, Keller asserts that “pity does not help much in such a situation, and mere charity is degrading. [Rather] what such a man wants more than anything else in the world is a fiend who will stand by him through the period of readjustment.” She argues that before advocacy work, the sighted must dispel misconceptions about the “poor” blind. Like future disability advocates, Keller recognizes that “blind and seeing—we are all parts of a great whole, and we depend one upon another,” emphasizing communal dependency, rather than the illusion of absolute independence and self-sufficiency. For a complete transcript of her speech, visit here from the American Foundation of the Blind.
Further Reading: The Story of My Life by Helen Keller (1903), The Helen Keller Archives from the American Foundation for the Blind, and The Radical Lives of Helen Keller by Kim E. Nielsen (2004)
1970: Judith Heumann cofounds Disabled In Action in New York—the start of a life of disability activism as grassroots organizer and policymaker
Judith Heumann (1947-present) has devoted her life to disability activism, both as a protester and grassroots organizer in the 1970s and 80s and as a policymaker serving as Assistant Secretary of Education for Special Education and Rehabilitation Services from 1993-2001.
As Heumann discusses in her TEDxTalk “Our Fight for Disability Rights and Why We’re Not Done,” she faced limited access to education, due to her disability, throughout her life. As a child, Heumann’s parents refused to institutionalize her and fought for her right to public education. Heumann herself became an activist in 1969 when she was denied a teaching position by the New York City Board of Education specifically because of her use of a wheelchair. It was during this time that Heumann realized, along with many other across the country, that “we had to be our own advocates. That we needed to fight back people’s view that if you had a disability, you needed to be cured. That equality was not part of the equation.” This is Heumann’s recounting of the beginning of the Disability Rights Movement.
Because of Heumann and many others’ work, the lives of Americans with disabilities have radically changed, with more access to education and work. In her federal position, she prompted disability policies of nondiscrimination, educational inclusion, and independent living. Still, as Heumann recognizes in her TEDxTalk, women and people with disabilities throughout the world experience violence, often from family members and caretakers. Just as Helen Keller called on allies to recognize their commonality with people with disabilities, Heumann concludes by urging collaborative efforts to end discrimination in the U.S. and abroad.
Further Reading: “Including the Voices of Disabled People in the International Development Agenda” by Judith Heumann and her oral history from the Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement Oral History Project
1977: Kitty Cone helps organize the 28-day sit-in at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in San Francisco, CA
Kitty Cone (1944-2015) was a colleague of Judy Heumann’s, part of the Independent Living Movement, and a leader in the historic 28-day sit-in at the Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) Department that began on April 5, 1977. Cone began her advocacy work in the civil rights and antiwar movements in the early 1960s. It was not until she appeared on the Jerry Lewis’ Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon in 1972 to talk about her wheelchair use, that Cone became a disability rights advocate. Along with Heumann, Cone became part of the Independent Living Movement, started by Ed Roberts in Berkeley, California. Cone began by focusing on access to the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), but quickly became part of the national movement.
In 1976, the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities (ACCD) received a promise from then-presidential candidate Jimmy Carter that he would sign regulations implementing Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which would remove federal funding from any public programs that discriminated against “handicapped” individuals. When Carter had not acted on his promise, Heumann, Cone, and others at the Center for Independent Living staged their sit-in at the HEW office in San Francisco. For nearly a month, 100 people with disabilities and their attendants occupied the fourth floor of HEW. Protesters, who were diverse in terms of disability and race, received aid from the Black Panther Party, the Butterfly Brigade, restaurants, clergy, grocery stores, members of Congress, and the San Francisco mayer. Cone and Heumann served as spokespeople, strategists, and organizers while occupying the building. After starting a hunger strike and sending a group, which included Cone and Heumann, to D.C., HEW Secretary Joseph Califano signed Section 504. This established a new level of legal protection and accessibility for people with disabilities in the U.S.
For Cone’s account of the sit-in, visit her oral history from the Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement Oral History Project.
Further Reading: Kitty Cone on parenting and disability (video interview) and The History of Modern Disability Policy in the Workplace by Ruth O’Brien (2001)
1979: Marilyn Hamilton creates the Quickie Wheelchair, the first lightweight wheelchair, providing a new level of mobility for wheelchair users
Marilyn Hamilton’s (1947-present) contributions to the community of people with disabilities is markedly different than many of the women featured here. Rather than participating in political activism, Hamilton gained additional access for wheelchair users by developing the first light-weight, adjustable wheelchair: the Quickie. After a hang gliding accident that broke Hamilton’s back and resulted in paraplegia, Hamilton was outfitted with a standard, 60-pound wheelchair. With two friends, Hamilton opened Motion Designs in 1979 and developed the Quickie wheelchair using hang gliding technology. Unlike previous models, the Quickie was high tech, fully adjustable and customizable, and highly maneuverable. As stated in the video developed for her honor at the Women’s Conference 2006, Hamilton’s Quickie wheelchair changed the lives of wheelchair users, not only giving them greater accessibility, but also providing a new outlook on disability. The Quickie revolutionized the wheelchair industry as well as wheelchair sports, which had been limited by previous wheelchair design. Hamilton herself won medals in skiing in the Paralympics (1982) and National Wheelchair Tennis titles in singles (1982, 1983) and doubles (1982). Additionally, Hamilton has started several nonprofits dedicated to wheelchair users and women with disabilities: Winners on Wheels for children wheelchair users and Discovery Through Design that celebrates women role models and raises funds for women’s health and spinal cord injury research.
Further Reading: “Marilyn Hamilton: A Play in Three Acts” by Sam Maddox (1997) and No Pity by Joseph P. Shapiro (1993)
1979: Mary Lou Breslin and Patrisha Wright cofound the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, a national advocacy group
Mary Lou Breslin (1922-present) and Patrisha Wright (1949-present) play significant roles in the Disability Rights and Independent Living Movements in California from the 1970s forward. Colleagues of Judith Heumann and Kitty Cone, Breslin and Wright contributed to the historic 28-day sit-in at HEW in San Francisco. Two years later, Breslin and Wright cofounded the Disability Rights and Education Defense Fund (DREDF) with Robert Funk. DREDF, a grassroots organization, focuses on policy reform and litigation on disability rights.
DREDF and Wright, in particular, were instrumental in the passage of the historic Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. The ADA was the first major civil rights law passed since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the most comprehensive piece of legislation in U.S. history outlawing discrimination on the basis of disability. At the time of its passage, the law affected the lives of approximately 43 million people. The passage of the ADA was the result of decades of advocacy and the passage of more incremental legislation such as the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975, and the Fair House Act Amendments of 1988. In 2008, after years of legislation that eroded the ADA, President George W. Bush signed the ADA Amendment Act of 2008 to restore the act. For more about the ADA, visit the EEOC website here.
The passage of the ADA marked a watershed moment in the Disability Rights Movement.Still, since its passage, the ADA has been critiqued by other disability rights activists (such as Marta Russell, featured here) and been subject to attacks from different political factions.
In 1995 Breslin also cofounded the Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement Oral History Project to document the lived experience of American disability history. You can find her entry here.
Further Reading: Disability Rights Law and Politics by Mary Lou Breslin and Silvia Yee (2002) Employment, Disability, and the Americans with Disabilities Act edited by Peter David Blanck (2000)
1991: Poet and performance artist Cheryl Marie Wade performs “Here” challenging the stigma of disability and providing an alternate form of activism
Cheryl Marie Wade (1948-2013), lovingly referred to as the “Queen Mother of Gnarly,” was a pioneer of disability arts and culture and one of the first performance artists with a physical disability to gain critical acclaim. Wade’s performance art and poetry, which feature visceral descriptions of her life with rheumatoid arthritis that resulted in physical disability and chronic pain, serve as an alternative form of disability activism. Rather than protesting or seeking policy reform, Wade combatted the stigmas of women’s disabled bodies by displaying her body through performance and challenging stereotypes and dominant narratives of disability through her prose.
Wade was an early critic of traditional disability activism and of the push for physical accessibility because it was not inclusive of people with chronic pain and/or illness. For Wade and women like her, greater access and equality would not remedy the physical pain that limited her activities and consumed her emotional and intellectual resources. This issue of marginalization even within the Disability Rights Movement would be echoed by Barbara Faye Waxman, Marta Russell, and the coordinators of the Disability March, all featured here.
In Wade’s performance of “Here,” she moves between lyrical poetry of quotes about her body and “gnarly” hands to prose-style reflections on how she interprets these depictions before moving on to discuss intimate relationships between people with disabilities. Over the course of the performance, she touches on the medicalization of disabled bodies, cultural fears of and prejudices against disability, the limits of physical accessibility, the importance of a community for people with disabilities, and her own sexuality.
Further Reading: Cheryl Marie Wade’s oral history from the Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement Oral History Project
1993: Barbara Faye Waxman becomes director of the California Family Health Council’s ADA Project
Barbara Faye Waxman (1955-2001) is sometimes referred to as the “mother of the disability and sexuality advocacy movement” and among the first to openly address sexual and reproductive rights of people with disabilities. In 1991, Waxman resigned from her position as disability specialist for Los Angeles Planned Parenthood, arguing that the organization espoused eugenic and antidisability attitudes. In 1993, she became director of the California Family Health Council’s Americans with Disabilities Act Project
Like other disability activists in the 1990s and forward, Waxman critiqued the dominant Disability Rights Movement; in her case, for overlooking the sexuality of people with disabilities. In 1991, she called on the disability community to discuss their sexual oppression in The Ragged Edge, a grassroots disability magazine founded by Mary Johnson and Cass Irvin that was active from 1980-2005, in her article “It’s Time to Politicize Our Sexual Oppression.” Citing an anti-sodomy law in Michigan that resulted in the conviction of a woman with a disability, Waxman boldly states that “disabled people are denied sexual and reproductive freedom, as well as the liberty to establish a family in our own image. However, the disability rights movement has never addressed sexuality as a key political issue, though many of us find sexuality to be the area of our greatest oppression. We are more concerned with being loved and finding sexual fulfillment than in getting on a bus.” The sentiments and critiques established here anticipate many that would follow, particularly the call for cultural and social acceptance and awareness over physical accessibility.
Additionally, Waxman engaged in a long legal battle with the Social Security Administration over eligibility requirements that made it virtually impossible for two people with disabilities on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) to marry without losing life-preserving benefits. She married Daniel Fiduccia, a cancer survivor activist, in 1996 after successfully lobbying for modified SSI requirements.
Further Reading: “Hatred” and “Sexual Imagery of Physically Disabled Women” in Sexuality and Disability by Barbara Waxman
1997: Laura Hershey, a former “poster child” for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, publishes “From Poster Child to Protester” criticizing the depiction of people with MD by the Association
Laura Hershey (1962-2010) was a poet and disability rights activist, mostly known for her yearly protest of the Jerry Lewis Telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. In 1974, Hershey was recruited as a poster child for the Muscular Dystrophy Association; however, in 1991, she began protesting the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon for being paternalistic toward people with MD.
In 1997, Hershey published “From Poster Child to Protester” in Spectacle renouncing the telethon and echoing some of the critiques of previous waves of disability activism. Like Barbara Faye Waxman, Hershey chooses to focus less on physical accessibility and more on cultural oppression. She writes that “for years we had been protesting against the barriers which keep people with disabilities from using buses, public buildings, and other facilities. Now we were taking on one of the biggest barriers of all: the paternalistic attitudes which prevail in our society, and which are reflected so dramatically in the annual telethon.” She argues that the MDA depicts people with disabilities as victims, rather than full citizens, and that the discourse of “curing disability” emphasizes a desire of universal able-bodiedness. Hershey concludes by calling for an end of the “annual insult.” The Jerry Lewis Telethon continued until Lewis’ departure in 2011 (amidst some controversy over whether he resigned or was fired) and was rebranded as the Show of Strength until its cancellation in 2015. Hershey continued her annual protest until her death in 2010.
Further Reading: “You Get Proud By Practicing” a poem (1992), “Choosing Disability” in Ms Magazine (1994), and Survival Strategies for Going Abroad: A Guide for People with Disabilities (2005) by Laura Hershey
1997: Corbett O’Toole organizes the first International Conference on Parents with Disabilities and Their Families
Another of the influential group of women participants in the Disability Rights Movement, Corbett O’Toole’s (1951-present) activism largely focuses on education, health, sexuality, and globalization in the context of women with disabilities. After working for the Center for Independent Living and participating in the sit-in at HEW with Heumann, Cone, Breslin, and Wright, O’Toole founded the Disabled Women’s Alliance in 1989. Since the 1990s, much of O’Toole’s advocacy work has focused on organizing international conferences for women with disabilities, such as the 1992 Disabled Women and the Law Conference and the 1997 First International Conference on Parents with Disabilities and Their Families. O’Toole also presented two briefings on the education and health care of disabled women and girls for Congress. O’Toole’s work corresponds with Barbara Faye Waxman’s emphasis on disability sexuality.
As an independent scholar, O’Toole’s work focuses on a sexuality and women with disabilities, particularly mothers. In “Sex, Disability, and Motherhood” for Disability Studies Quarterly, the first journal devoted to disability studies, O’Toole argues that “disabled mothers face many issues that inhibit or prevent them from effective parenting,” particularly scarcity of information and resources, yet “they also find effective solutions.” She concludes by noting that the barriers to success “reside in the unexamined medical-model perspective” and that challenging this model would “provide permanent reframing of fundamental myths that constrain disabled women’s access to sexuality and parenting.” O’Toole’s own scholarship and activism work to combat these myths and provide a model of motherhood for women with disabilities. She adopted her daughter, Meecha Bragante Corbett, who also has a disability, during her work at the United Nations Fourth International Conference on Women in Beijing, China.
Further Reading: Congressional Briefing on Disabled Girls and Young Women in Education (2002) and “The Sexist Inheritance of the Disability Movement” in Gendering Disability (2004) by Corbett O’Toole. You can also view her oral history from the Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement Oral History Project.
1998: Marta Russell publishes Beyond Ramps critiquing the Americans with Disabilities Act
Marta Russell (1951-2013) was a journalist and independent scholar of disability activism and one of the most outspoken opponents of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Although she began her career in film, Russell became increasingly focused on disability policy and Social Security Insurance as her life-long disability progressed.
In Beyond Ramps: Disability at the End of the Social Contract, published in 1998, Russell makes her most scathing case against the ADA. She argues that industrial capitalism inextricably tied the value of an individual to their ability to work and that social Darwinism helped establish the notion that individuals who do not thrive in a capitalist system are personally to blame, despite the fact that the system promotes inequality. Russell critiques the ADA and, therefore, the dominant Disability Rights Movement for attempting to shift values based solely on the notion that people with disabilities can be part of the workforce. Like, Barbara Faye Waxman and Cheryl Marie Wade, Russell argues that disability advocates work toward a larger shift to a humanist perspective: “The goal of social justice is to ensure the dignity of each and every person. To buy into the capitalist propaganda that work is god, that people are laborers first and human beings second, serves only to oppress us all.”
Russell leaves behind a legacy of groundbreaking work that combines disability studies and policy with Marxist economic theory.
Further Reading: “What Disability Civil Rights Cannot Do” in Disability & Society by Marta Russell (2002), Disability Politics in a Global Economy: Essays in Honor of Marta Russell edited by Ravi Malhotra, and “Honoring Marta Russell” by Ravi Malhotra from Solidarity
2003: Harriet McBryde Johnson makes the cover of The New York Times Magazine for her article recounting her debate with Peter Singer
Harriet McBryde Johnson (1957-2008) was a disability rights lawyer and activist most well known for debating Peter Singer, the famed moral philosopher, at Stanford University in 2002. Singer argued that parents should be given the choice to euthanize infants with severe disabilities because they will be “worse off” in life than their able-bodied counterparts. Johnson, who experienced disability since birth from a muscle-wasting disease, used her own life experiences as well as common arguments from the Disability Rights Movement and the organization Not Yet Dead to refute Singer.
Nearly a year after the debate took place, Johnson published “Unspeakable Conversations” a cover story for The New York Times Magazine recounting her experience. The article moves from her first encounter with Singer to their email exchange and public debate providing detailed descriptions of Johnson’s experience as a woman with severe disabilities. For example, she provides a detailed and lengthy description of her travel, which includes her power wheelchair being destroyed by airline staff and a night sleeping in the airport before repairs could be completed. Ultimately, Johnson argues that the foundation of Singer’s position lies in commonplace prejudice. She also refuses to villainize Singer because “then I must so define all who believe disabled lives are inherently worse off or that a life without a certain kind of consciousness lacks value. That definition would make monsters of many of the people with whom I move on the sidewalks, do business, break bread, swap stories and share the grunt work of local politics.” She concludes by saying that “my goal isn’t to shed the perspective that comes from my particular experience, but to give voice to it.”
Further Reading: Too Late to Die Young by Harriet McBryde Johnson (2005) and “A Habitable World” in Hypatia by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (2014)
January 21, 2017: The virtual Disability March, a sister to the Women’s March on Washington, takes place in response to the 2016 election
The Disability March of 2017 is both a divergence from previous iterations of women’s disability activism and a culmination of decades of work. In response to the 2016 Presidential election, women across the country and world participated in the Women’s March on Washington on January 21, 2017. The Disability March was a virtual sister march of “disabled activists who could not take part in the physical Women’s March but needed to have their voices heard.” Spearheaded by Sonya Huber, a creative writer and academic, and her friends with chronic pain and invisible illness, the March, which featured photos and text for individual marchers, was hand-coded by volunteers and culminated with 3,014 marchers.
The Disability March complicates both definitions of protest and of disability. Following in Cheryl Marie Wade’s critique of the Disability Rights Movement, the organizers argue that “the disabled community is endangered because much able activism is difficult to access, and that needs to change.” Individual marchers cited restrictions of accessibility aids, such as dogs, and physical and/or mental limitations as reasons for not participating in the physical march. The Disability March also takes an expansive definition of “disability,” emphasizing chronic pain and invisible illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, Crohn’s disease, and fibromyalgia. More than a cross-disability march, like those organized in the 1970s and 1980s, the Disability March challenges the assumptions and definitions of both the able-bodied community and the dominant disability rights community.
Visit the Disability March website and Facebook. For more information about Sonya Huber visit her website and read her recently published book of essays, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System, about her experiences with chronic pain.