February is Black History Month and we wanted to finish out the month strong by recognizing some icons who helped carry the load for those with disabilities during the Civil Rights Movement. These 3 are just a few examples of those who went above and beyond, despite their abilities, to "be the change" that was so needed and to be a voice for those who were voiceless. I encourage you to follow some of the attached links as resources and learn more about these and others who stood strong!
Lois Curtis: Art and Advocacy
Lois Curtis lived out the formative years of her life as a resident of one institution for people with developmental disabilities or another. From age 11 through her early twenties this young black woman, diagnosed with intellectual and developmental disabilities as well as schizophrenia, found herself in this home from which she prayed so fervently to be released. Lois was her own advocate when one was not available, placing regular calls to the Atlanta Legal Aid Society begging for help getting out of the institution.
Lois was one of the plaintiff’s in the famous 1999 Olmstead Supreme Court decision. The Olmstead decision was a pivotal moment for those with developmental disabilities and reinforced that segregation based on disability was, in fact, a violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Olmstead Decision states:
“On June 22, 1999, the United States Supreme Court held in Olmstead v. L.C. that unjustified segregation of persons with disabilities constitutes discrimination in violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Court held that public entities must provide community-based services to persons with disabilities when (1) such services are appropriate; (2) the affected persons do not oppose community-based treatment; and (3) community-based services can be reasonably accommodated, taking into account the resources available to the public entity and the needs of others who are receiving disability services from the entity.
“The Supreme Court explained that its holding “reflects two evident judgments.
“First, “institutional placement of persons who can handle and benefit from community settings perpetuates unwarranted assumptions that persons so isolated are incapable of or unworthy of participating in community life.” Second, “confinement in an institution severely diminishes the everyday life activities of individuals, including family relations, social contacts, work options, economic independence, educational advancement, and cultural enrichment.”
While Lois was a key figure in a disability rights case that changed the lives of so many, she is far more than just that. She currently lives in the community with the assistance of community-based supports and shares her love of art and her spirit of advocacy with all she meets. Lois is a self-taught artist whose medium of choice is pastels and acrylics. She loves portraits and has an incredibly unique way of capturing the emotions and expressions of her subject. Most notably, Lois was able to present one of her drawings to former president Barack Obama at the White House in 2011.
Through the example set by Lois we can see that one person can make a difference for many, she is definitely a special soul. For more information on the life of Lois Curtis please visit the following:
Ever Lee Hairston: Activist
Ever Lee Hairston, a civil rights activist that marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wears many different hats. In addition to being a board member with the National Federation of the Blind, Ms. Hairston is an advocate, motivational speaker and author of Blind Ambition: One Woman’s Journey To Greatness Despite Her Blindness.
Born with retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a rare genetic degenerative eye disease, Ms. Hairston struggled with vision issues her entire life that eventually led to total blindness in her late 20’s. While this may have put a halt to her desire to pursue a medical career it did not deter Ms. Hairston’s great ambitions. A longtime advocate and activist Hairston would not let anything deter her spirit of perseverance, believing in herself, and fighting for her rights. Even after being asked to resign from a beloved teaching position because of her blindness she would not let anyone tell her she was not enough, she kept fighting to be of service to herself and of service to those around her.
Her attitude is beautifully summed up in the poem Ms. Hairston published (below) entitled “What it’s like to be blind”
As I travel throughout the United States and abroad, many ask, “What is it like to be blind?” Well, I’d like to sum it up in these words:
I can’t see the trees, but I can touch the leaves.
I can’t see the ocean, but I can feel the breeze.
I can’t see a child, but I can hear one grow.
I can’t see your smile, but I can feel your glow.
I can’t see a hillside or rainbow I can’t find, but I’m not missing out on rainbows because they are painted on my mind.
I can’t see a garden, but I can smell the flowers.
I can’t see a timepiece, but I can certainly count the hours.
I can’t see a house, but I know when I’m at home.
I can’t see you sitting there, but I know I am never alone.
I can see joy.
I can see happiness.
I can see love.
I can see blessings from above.
So no, I may not be able to see a hillside or a rainbow I can’t find, but I’m not missing out on life because it’s painted on my mind.
– Ever Lee Hairston
You can learn more about Ms. Hairston at:
Brad Lomax: Disability Power
Brad Lomax, a member of the Black Panther Party in California during the civil rights revolution of the late 1960’s and 1970’s, was a disability rights activist and active leader during the 504 Sit-in in San Francisco (1977).
Signed in 1973, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation act stated that “no otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United States shall solely on the basis of handicap, be excluded from participation, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” Plainly stated, it is unlawful for any program receiving federal funds to discriminate against a person with a disability. While 504, at that time, was excellent in theory, implementation was quite a different story. Given the broad strokes of what this brand of non-discrimination should look like there was no set of standards to put them into action. Despite a definitive set of guidelines offered by the Office for Civil Rights and despite actions by the disability community, by 1977 no regulations were issued; realizing that action was the only response the American coalition of citizens with disabilities called for sit-ins at eight HEW regional headquarters if the recommendations by the Office of Civil Rights were not adopted.
The San Francisco federal building sit-in, the only one that endured, lasted 28 days and was critical in forcing the signing of the regulations almost unchanged. This is where Mr. Lomax comes into the story. With a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis and wheelchair use, Lomax was a staunch advocate for the disability community, even moving the Black Panther Party to join his efforts. He recognized the need for more disability services and supports within his own community and pushed the Black Panther Party to sponsor a proposal to open a Center for Independent Living in Berkley, California (1972) where he was one of a two-person staff providing basic peer counseling and attendant referral. While the Black Panther Party had no real stance on disability policy, once one of their own was involved the rest of the party shared its support.
Mr. Lomax was an active participant in the 504 Sit-In as well as the contingent that took the resultant disability message to Washington, DC at its resolution. This 28 day sit in was grueling for all involved, but particularly those with disability. Lomax was joined by his friend and fellow Black Panther Party Member, Chuck Jackson, who participated alongside him and helped warrant a Black Panther Party response. With two of their own fighting on the front lines, the party then stepped in and provided what has been termed one of the most “critical gifts” given to protesters during the sit-in – a daily hot meal. The Panthers would not just support their own, thanks to the tireless efforts of Lomax, the Panthers brought a daily hot meal to every single participant at the sit-in.
Lomax was also part of the 25 person group that was chosen to represent the disability community in presenting the list of regulations, which were eventually signed into law in late April, to Washington, D.C. – that contingent returned to San Francisco to lead the protesters out of the HEW headquarters triumphantly singing “We Will Overcome. Mr. Lomax continued his work and advocacy through the Black Panthers Party for until his passing in 1984 from Multiple Sclerosis related complications. Brad Lomax was an amazing advocate during a time of civil unrest for not only people with disabilities but people of color.
You can learn more about Mr. Lomax and the 504 Sit-In at: