Spotlighting Influential Black Disabled Advocates for Black History Month

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It is Black History Month, and I could not think of a better way of observing the significance than spotlighting Black disabled advocates who have influenced me personally, and in my advocacy work.

The voices and actions of Black disabled advocates have been missing from the histories of the civil rights movement and disability rights movement.  This gross exclusion creates the illusion that only white disabled advocates have made an impact within the disability rights movement, which is furthest from the truth.  Black disabled advocates were, and still are, heavily active within both movements, and tirelessly ramp their voices for equality and justice concerning the prominent identities they possessed.  Articles like this one will educate those from all walks of life about the pivotal messages and spirits of these advocates, and carve out a space for them to receive recognition that is long overdue.

Brad Lomax – Disabled Member of the Black Panther Party Chapter in Oakland, CA


Brad Lomax (left) with his brother Glenn Lomax. Both were members of the Black Panthers Party (BPP) in Oakland, CA

Last summer, I stumbled upon the above photograph of Bradley Lomax with his brother Glenn Lomax floating around online.  The caption read that Brad was a member of the Black Panthers Party (BPP) in Oakland, California, and that he was pivotal in getting the chapter involved in key disability activism.  1977 was the year of the historic sit-in at the Federal Building in San Francisco.  The purpose of the sit-in was to pressure legislators in passing strong regulations pertaining to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.  Section 504 protects disabled Americans from discrimination based on their disability status.  The section of the legislation focuses on employers and organizations that receive funding from any Federal department or agency.  Such institutions prohibited from discriminating against disabled persons under the mandate are schools, hospitals, nursing homes, mental health centers, human service programs, etc.

Brad was a member of the Party and a Panther disability rights/independent living movement leader who understood that black nationalism and disability power were combined foci and not separate constructs.  Brad’s dual activism motivated the Black Panther Party to provide food to protesters inside the federal building, and cover the actions of the advocates within its newspaper, Black Panther.  It had been noted that without the BPP’s involvement (especially in feeding advocates), the sit-ins would not have been successful.

Learning of Brad’s advocacy (and his plight with MS), and the participation of the BPP, filled my heart with excitement, and later, anger.  The anger stemmed from the fact that Brad was erased from the histories of both movements; his presence greatly affected the successfulness of the sit-ins.  This deletion also prevented us from seeing a different side of the Black Panthers Party, an organization that has more negative (oftentimes inaccurate, and racially-charged) connotations stamped onto its existence than empowering ones.

Knowing that Black disabled advocates and black organizations were a part of both movements was powerful for a budding activist like myself to read.  I, and so many others, need these role models because they “look like us” – Black and disabled.  To not be represented in the history books when civil rights and disability rights are discussed is damaging to our abilities to effectively and proudly advocate for ourselves, and embrace the identities we have.

Hydeia Broadbent – Fearlessly Living With AIDS & Advocating Like None Other


Hydeia Broadbent. Photo on the left was taken in 1996; photo on the right is Hydeia present-day as a Millennial advocate

Being an 80s baby/90s kid, I remember the countless stories shared about living with HIV/AIDS from individuals and advocates who were fervently determined to extinguish stigma and discrimination surrounding the disease.  One particular advocate I recall vividly from those days was Hydeia Broadbent.  Hydeia and I were the same age, and were disabled Black girls; she was born with HIV, and I was born with OI.  Hydeia was ardent about discussing what it was like living with AIDS since the age of 3, and how others viewed and treated her because of her status.  It was troubling to hear the way adults and peers ostracized her for having AIDS.  Her testimony shattered ignorance concerning what HIV/AIDS “looked like” during a time when fear and misunderstandings still dominated society’s consciousness.

Seeing a young Black girl speak unapologetically about her life and her illness was profound to me – there was someone who looked like me advocating about their health and life.  I wished that young disabled Black girls today, in particular, had someone their age they could look to as I did with Hydeia.  Representation, even at a young age, leaves a profound mark on how we view ourselves in a world that refuses to acknowledge our existence and stories.

Hydeia, like the rest of us Millennials, has grown up, and she is still advocating for herself, and those like her.  Below is a statement from Hydeia’s advocacy as a young woman, and she still has that fire within her now as she did in her younger years:

I have been living with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) since birth. I had full-blown Acquired Immuno Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) by the age of 3. At first when I say that I was born with HIV, people think my story does not matter to them. What do I say to this? The same disease that I am living with is the same disease you can get from taking part in unsafe sexual acts, if you and your partner do not know your HIV status. The “H” in HIV stands for HUMAN – that means ANYONE.

Growing up I was always in and out of the hospital from blood infections to brain infections to having chicken pox 7 times because my immune system was so weak. I coded blue three different times, meaning I’ve died three times and the doctors brought me back to life. Knowing these things makes me appreciate life so much more.

I am [30] years old. I take three HIV/AIDS medications a day and I go to the doctor every 3-6 months, more if I’m feeling ill. I went to college, but had to stop going because I was sick and needed to rest.

It is possible for someone living with HIV/AIDS to have a relationship but partners have to be educated on how to stay safe. I am dating someone I’ve known since high school. We plan on getting married when he is done with school. At one point, I was madly in love with someone who was ashamed of letting people know I have full-blown AIDS, which hurt and sometimes brought me down.

I try to stay positive because there are people who are no longer with us, and I don’t want to walk around depressed when I have a heart beat.

(Excerpt from Fuck Yeah Famous Black Girls’ Tumblr blog.)

The Late Dr. Maya Angelou  – Finding Her Voice After Years of Silence


The great Dr. Maya Angelou

When we lost the legendary Dr. Maya Angelou last year, a piece of my heart broke the moment I heard of her passing.  Maya Angelou had influenced me tremendously as a Black woman, and a writer.  Her bodies of work are timeless, and her gifted ability in reshaping tragic life experiences into astute life lessons was uncanning.  It always amazed me how a woman who grew up in humbling conditions could persevere so gracefully without a morsel of bitterness.  It is women like Maya, especially those from the Silent Generation, that I look to for guidance when I experience obstacles because I know that if they could overcome ills and heartbreaks, then I can, and will, too.

Though Maya’s life has been dissected over the years, one particular area that does not get much attention is the selective mutism she endured as a child.  When Maya was 8 years old, she was abused and sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend.  Maya confided in her brother about what happened, which led to her rapist being convicted and sentenced.  Though he was charged with this despicable crime, he was released from jail, and days after his release, his body was found.

Children tend to internalize tragic events by blaming themselves for the outcomes that transpire, and a young Maya did that with this incident.  Maya believed that she caused her abuser’s death by speaking up.  The fear that her voice could be used for harm than good triggered her into 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.  It seemed that when Maya temporarily lost her speaking ability, she gained powerful capabilities in areas that would serve her tremendously, both personally and professionally, over her lifetime.

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.

Final Thoughts

These three Black disabled advocates are the ones that drive what I do, and why I have focused on minorities with disabilities in my work.  Our stories matter, and we need current and future generations reading about our trailblazers so that they realize that they are not alone in their dual identities.  Black, disabled faces deserve visibility since we make up a large portion of the disability community; and we cannot afford to be overlooked anymore, both within and outside the community.

CALL FOR ACTION:  This article spotlights three advocates, but there are many more who are worthy of recognition and respect.  What Black disabled advocates, both past and present, should be written about on the blog?  Share their names and stories with me so that I can feature them in future articles on RYV!

And one last thing:  Happy Black History Month!

(Featured images:  Courtesy of Bay View:  National Black Newspaper, Fuck Yeah Famous Black Girls (Tumblr blog), & the Official Maya Angelou’s Facebook page.)

About Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant "tire track mark" on the world.

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