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Black History Month 2017: Donald Galloway, Disabled Social Worker Who Fought for Inclusion

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Image of two disabled men strolling and rolling down an outdoor pathway. Man on the left is Donald Galloway, tall Black man with an afro with a guide dog by his side. Man on the right is Ed Roberts, white man who is in a wheelchair. Both men are facing the direction of the camera while in mid-stroll/roll.  Photo credit:  Ken Okuno.  

For my last feature for Black History Month, I will spotlight the life of Donald Galloway, a man who was not hesitant to take on authorities when it came to the inclusion of disabled people.  Donald’s story resonated with me because he was a social worker like myself, and in reading his advocacy legacy, fighting for justice and inclusion is the call we answer as helping professionals.  As with many of the Black disabled social workers I know, our involvement in this movement is a unique mixture of ramping our voices while fulfilling the ethical duty we have as professionals.  Donald was no exception to this, and I felt that as we are nearing the end of Black History Month and about to begin Social Work Month (which is in March), telling his story will bridge the two worlds I am proud to be a part of.  

Donald Galloway:  Using the Legal System to Demand Inclusion for All

Donald was born in 1938 in Maryland, and became disabled at the age of 13 when he was injured in one eye while playing with a bow and arrow.  It was nerve damage due to a lack of proper medical attention to his injury that caused him to become blind in his other eye.  He moved from Maryland to California in his late teens, and it was in California where he received his post-secondary education.  He graduated with his Bachelor’s degree in 1967 at California State University at Los Angeles and obtained his Master’s in Social Work (MSW) degree in 1969 at California State University at San Diego.

Kenneth Stein, who has shared images of some of the advocates featured this month, remembers working with Donald when he was the head of the Center for Independent Living’s (CIL) Research and Demonstration Project.  This project oversaw CIL’s Peer Counseling Project, and Joyce Jackson (who was our first feature this month) was one of the peer counselors.  Ken shared how this project was revolutionary because it was disabled people helping other disabled people navigate systems that disempowered them, and intervened as an intermediary between our community and those “god-awful” systems.  In his career, Donald would lead and be instrumental in the work of many disabled-centered organizations, both in California and when he returned back to Maryland later in life.

Ken shared with me the logo cover he designed for the 47-page report about peer counseling for CIL. The design was placed on a sweet baby blue cardstock cover, typed on an old Selectric typewriter. At the top is clipart of two deers facing each other, with the following words beneath them: PEER COUNSELING AT THE CENTER FOR INDEPENDENT LIVING. A description of CIL’s Research and Demonstration Project.

What struck me about Donald was that he was not afraid to take systems to task when he was unfairly discriminated against because he was disabled.  His first legal battle took place in 1991, when he was denied the opportunity to serve as a juror because he was blind.  He was told that a blind person would be unable to fulfill certain duties as a juror, such as observing the behavior and conduct of witnesses and reading the evidence provided.  Given his history within CIL and his educational background, Donald was not going to take this exclusion lightly.  He made the following statement about the false claims regarding his abilities:  

“I don’t have to see a gun.  I could feel the gun or have someone describe it to me.  They are making the assumption that I can’t perceive or make judgments.”

Donald won his case in 1993, when a U.S. District Judge ruled that blind people could not be automatically excluded from serving as jurors.  The ruling stated that exceptions were to be made on an individual basis (moreso for cases with an exceptional amount of documents to be reviewed).

Donald experienced his second encounter with discrimination that lead to a legal battle when he was turned down for an administrative job with the Foreign Service because of his blindness.  He sued and reached a settlement with the government in that case.  In both legal incidences, he was refused inclusion by judicial and governmental entities, spaces where there should not have been room for ableism to exist.  It makes one wonder how entities that are suppose to uphold the laws or follow them to their full extent are the very ones failing to adhere and then become oppressive.  Even when we are given the rights we hold dear, it still is not enough; luckily Donald knew that what had been forced upon him was wrong and he was bold to stand up for what was just.  

A Social Worker After My Own Heart

Donald’s ability to use systems to fight against ableism and discrimination is a prime example of him living out the core values of the social work profession.  The core value that I discerned in reading Donald’s history is the one that drives my advocacy work:  social justice.  

According to the Code of Ethics of Social Work:  

Value: Social Justice

Ethical Principle: Social workers challenge social injustice.

Social workers pursue social change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people. Social workers’ social change efforts are focused primarily on issues of poverty, unemployment, discrimination, and other forms of social injustice. These activities seek to promote sensitivity to and knowledge about oppression and cultural and ethnic diversity. Social workers strive to ensure access to needed information, services, and resources; equality of opportunity; and meaningful participation in decision making for all people.

Donald exemplified this principle by seeking action to proclaim that he had a right to access needed information and services (in becoming a juror) and having equality of opportunity (being considered a viable candidate for an employment position).  He used his knowledge to pursue social change that not only mattered to him, but also to those in our community.  Social workers are taught to be advocates – we are suppose to serve and protect the most vulnerable and marginalized in our society.  For disabled social workers, we are in the distinct placement of both knowing intimately how systems disadvantage clients and being in the position to assist in efforts to abolish obstacles.  Donald’s work as an advocate for himself and others displayed how one juggles the identities of being disabled and a helping professional, something that goes unnoticed and underappreciated.  

Final Thoughts

Doing these write-ups of Black disabled people who were trailblazers in the earlier days of the movement impacted me in ways I did not expect.  What blew me away was the resounding appreciation of each story by those on social media.  It was particularly warming to see many non-disabled Black people state how much they valued discovering the lives of Joyce, Johnnie, Brad, and now Donald.  

Black disability history is my history.  Black disability history IS Black history.  

Respect and recognize our contributions to Black history because we have always been here, and will continue to battle against the “-isms” that oppresses and ostracizes us all.  We are Black excellence, we are Black pride, and we are unapologetically disabled.  

(Featured headlining images:  Courtesy of Kenneth Stein & Ken Okuno.)

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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