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Black History Month 2017: Remembering Joyce Jackson, Black, Disabled, & Phenomenal

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Image of Joyce shown smiling, walking down the wide sidewalk in an Oct 20 t-shirt, with a large crowd of people with balloons and signs behind her. She is holding up the right side of a big banner that says "FULL RIGHTS FOR DISABLED PEOPLE -- IMPLEMENT 504."

Image of Joyce shown smiling, walking down the wide sidewalk in an Oct 20 t-shirt, with a large crowd of people with balloons and signs behind her. She is holding up the right side of a big banner that says “FULL RIGHTS FOR DISABLED PEOPLE — IMPLEMENT 504.”

For Black History Month 2017, I will feature the names, faces, and voices of Black disabled people who were a part of the influential advocacy efforts made during the heart of the Disability Rights Movement.  As I have stated on the blog, the erasure of Black disabled people from disability history is profound, and the same offenses are committed when we discuss Black history.  Taking action to correct these wrongs is a steadfast passion of my advocacy; these stories must be told so that Black disabled people will have disabled historical figures to look up to and be proud of.

To assist with my series, I will be sharing the photography and stories of Kenneth Stein, a writer and photographer who, in the early days of the independent living/disability rights movement, had the distinguished privilege of witnessing the work of, befriending, and photographing the exceptional Black disabled advocates that will be spotlighted.  Ken has been generous to share with me parts of his collection for the feature.  Our love for history is how our friendship developed, and it has been a joy to know Ken and hear the stories he has about some of the individuals that have been left out of the history books.  Ken understands my passion for all things Black history related, and has shared with me important news clippings of the history that has taken place in California.  

One of the first advocates Ken exposed me to was Joyce Jackson, a woman who was a significant force when the Independent Living (IL) movement was developed.  What struck me was the fact that I had not heard of many Black disabled people who were a part of the beginnings of that movement, which Ken referred to as “at that time, a revolutionary model program for people with disabilities.”  Many of the Black advocates Ken named and shared images of were heavily involved, yet their presence and work are noticeably absent when history is told.  

The Life of Joyce Jackson:  Black, Disabled, & Phenomenal

Joyce Jackson was born on July 2nd, 1947 in Berkeley, California.  According to those who knew her as a child, she was spirited and adventurous, something we would see take form in her advocacy work.  It was when she was 12 years old that she became disabled; she was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.  According to the Mayo Clinic, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis is the most common type of arthritis found in children 17 years old and younger.  This form of arthritis can create persistent joint pain, swelling, and stiffness symptoms.  Those with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis may have symptoms for only a few months while others will have them for the rest of their lives.  

For Joyce, her experience with arthritis was lifelong, having endured over 50 surgeries in her lifetime.  When Ken remembers Joyce, he remarked how “she and I kept in touch through the years, and she would periodically call me asking to send her materials to give to people, even at the end, at her nursing care facility, to tell people about 504 and the disability rights movement.”  Learning of her still doing the good work of advocacy and educating people while in a nursing facility told me how fierce Joyce was.  The good work still needed to be done, even when our bodies wants us to stop.  To hear of Joyce’s devoted nature struck me; it proved that Black women will always push through and get the job done – disability be damned.

When I received more information about Joyce and her life, the way her advocacy work was described in a beautifully written obituary about her was amazing.  It was amazing to learn of a Black woman who did such incredible work at the beginning of the independent living movement, and to know how she shaped the movement with her presence.  

Here is how those who knew Joyce recount her advocacy involvement:  

Early in her career, soon after accepting a job with the Center for Independent Living (CIL) in Berkeley, Joyce began a second defining period in her life.

In April of 1977, she took part in a disability rights sit-in that lasted nearly a month. Led by disability rights advocate Judy Heumann, some 150 severely disabled demonstrators and their supporters occupied the San Francisco regional offices of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), demanding enforcement of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Similar demonstrations were held in several other cities across the country.

As the nationwide protests continued, Joyce was one of 20 activists sent to Washington, D.C., to meet with Carter administration officials. While in D.C., the activists convinced HEW officials to implement Section 504 – the landmark civil rights legislation prohibiting federally funded agencies, programs, and activities from discriminating against the disabled. From that point on, all agencies and programs receiving federal funds had to find ways to accommodate people with disabilities, ensuring accessibility to opportunities in education, employment, housing, and other areas.

The “504” victory brought about life-changing improvements for the disabled, including architectural accommodations ranging from handicapped-accessible restrooms to curb cuts, wheelchair ramps, and bus transit lifts.

Later, Joyce would serve three terms on the national board of the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities, attending board meetings at the ACCD home office in Washington, D.C., and traveling around the country to answer questions about the new law. She also continued working as a disability counselor for nonprofits and as a telecommunications support representative in the private sector. By the mid-90s, however, her physicians had intervened and urged her to retire.

Why Joyce Matters to Me

When I read about Joyce’s involvement in the 504 protests, I realized she was the same age I am now – early 30s.  To be a Black disabled woman at that time meant that you still were not fully free.  Your identity as a Black person finally had legal protections while your disabled identity did not.  To be at that intersectional crossroads and yet be determined to fight for not only yourself, but others like you, spoke of true selflessness displayed.  Joyce fully understood how and why discrimination must be eradicated, and did her part to assist in those efforts.  To hear and read of her cementing her place in disability rights history at my age and her continuing the work well into her later years energizes me.  It shows that the advocacy fire can remain lit, no matter our age or how our bodies progress.  How Joyce lived her life is how I want to live mine – becoming that older advocate who still educates, raises hell, and keep moving forward.  

In the image shared of Joyce, she is smiling with a beautiful afro as her crown on her head – unapologetically Black and disabled.  I am sure Joyce endured some of the same issues I and others do today in our community – racism, sexism/misogynoir, erasure, and mircroaggressions.  However, in that photograph, I can see fully the spirit of a woman who did not allow the world to define her, or be discouraged that she could not do something meaningful to make it better than it was before she entered it.  That is why Joyce’s story and her place in disability history matters to me – Joyce is me, and represents so many other Black disabled women I know.  It is women like Joyce that I am indebted to, and must continue to carry the torch they lit years ago.  

Final Thoughts

Joyce will be one of many Black disabled advocates from “back in the day” I will feature this month.  Our Black disabled historical trailblazers’ names, tales, and work deserve to be well-known and deep in the history books as everyone else’s.  Part of what drives me is spotlighting these individuals to ensure that the next generation of Black disabled advocates are not unknowledgeable about coming from a powerful group of people who fought against so many things, and still held their heads high.  Learning of women like Joyce makes me sit in my wheelchair a bit straighter, knowing that I have disabled sheroes to respect and hold their narratives dear to my heart as I make good trouble.  

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of Kenneth Stein.)

Please Note:  Ken has been very kind to share his collection with me for this series.  These photos may be shared on Facebook, but may not be reprinted, put on any website, or used for any other purpose without expressed permission.  I ask that you respect his creativity and seek out his permission first and give credit for any other uses.  Respecting the art & creativity of others is a priority for me, & I ask that you do the same when it comes to the body of work shared by fellow advocates.  Thank you. ~ Vilissa

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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