by Sandra Sermons
Editor’s Note: ACB of Maryland held a virtual march on August 29, 2020. Sandra collected the biographies of these disability rights warriors at the march.
Ever Lee Hairston
Ever Lee Hairston is a staunch advocate for disability rights and social justice. She began her activism marching alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and remains a steadfast supporter of advocacy for people who are blind or have low vision.
Born on a plantation in North Carolina, Ever Lee is the third of seven children. She grew up and attended schools in the segregated South. Despite the brutality of growing up in the segregated South, and with vision loss further complicating matters, Ever Lee still had a strong desire to become a nurse. Her parents could not afford to send her to college. After high school, she went to New York City to earn money for college by working as a live-in maid. She returned to North Carolina at the end of the summer anxious to pursue a nursing career. However, she failed the required eye examination. Undaunted, she went on to earn a teaching degree from North Carolina Central University.
While working as a high school teacher in New Jersey, Ever Lee’s vision continued to deteriorate. She finally sought medical care and was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RP). After four years in teaching, Ever Lee was forced to resign from her teaching position due to her impending blindness.
After taking stock, Ever Lee decided to take graduate courses in counseling at Rutgers University, and in 1983 she obtained a counselor trainee position with the Camden County Department of Health and Human Services. But, as she explains it, “With no blindness skills, I was faking my way through.” She relied heavily on sighted people to read to her and to act as guides. However, she ultimately obtained blindness skills and continues to advocate for the needs of people who are blind or have low vision. Today, Ever Lee is blessed with a son, Victor; a daughter-in-law, Brenda; and three energetic grandchildren: Briana, Kendall, and Jasmine.
Ever Lee Hairston Poem
As I travel throughout the U.S. and abroad, many ask me, “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.
can see happiness.
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.
Donald “Don” Galloway was a disability activist and civil rights advocate who won a landmark lawsuit against the D.C. government for the right of people who are blind or have low vision to serve on juries.
In 1974, Don began working as director of services for people who are blind or have low vision at the D.C. Center for Independent Living (CIL). He later served as executive director of the Governor’s Council on the Handicapped, followed by an appointment from 1978 to 1980 as the first blind Peace Corps director in Jamaica.
Don served as manager of the disability affairs branch of the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, and retired in 2009 from the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs as program coordinator.
Don was born in 1938 in Maryland and became blind in one eye at the age of 13 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. In 1967, he graduated with his bachelor’s degree from California State University-Los Angeles and obtained his master’s degree in social work (MSW) in 1969 from California State University-San Diego.
Don was not afraid to speak out when he was discriminated against for having a disability. His first legal battle took place in 1991, when he was denied the opportunity to serve as a juror because he was blind. They said he would be unable to fulfill certain duties as a juror, such as observing the behavior of witnesses and reading the evidence. Don responded, “I don’t have to use a gun. I could feel the gun or have the gun described to me. They are making the assumption that I can’t perceive or make judgments.”
Don exemplified the principle of social justice, not only by standing up for his rights, but by pursuing social change for his community as a whole.
By Any Means Necessary
Bradley Lomax was unflinching in his advocacy pertaining to Black empowerment and disability rights. In 1977, Bradley played a pivotal role in the historic sit-in that forced the government to implement Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Bradley was a member of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and the founder of the BPP East Oakland Center for Independent Living.
After graduating from high school in 1968, Bradley attended Howard University. It was during this time that he joined the Black Panther Party because he wanted to be part of a revolution that would provide a better life for Black Americans. He envisioned a life which was free of inequality, poverty, and police brutality.
While a student at Howard, Bradley began inexplicably falling as he walked. He soon learned that he had multiple sclerosis. As the disease progressed, he began using a wheelchair — and it opened his eyes to another form of discrimination. He found that the wheelchairs designed to provide independence were of little use in gaining entrance to public buildings without ramps. He saw that people with disabilities were regularly denied an education, and that there were few services to help them find housing or jobs, especially if they were people of color. Bradley helped to found the Black Panther Party’s Washington, D.C. chapter in 1969 and then helped to organize the first African Liberation Day demonstration, which drew tens of thousands of marchers to the National Mall.
He subsequently moved to Oakland, Calif., but once there, found it difficult to navigate the transit system. To board a bus, his brother, Glenn, would have to lift him out of his wheelchair, carry him up the steps and place him in a seat, then go back to retrieve the wheelchair.
After moving to Oakland, he learned about the Center for Independent Living, an organization started by people with disabilities that was instrumental in getting curb cuts for wheelchairs at street corners in San Francisco and nearby Berkeley. In 1975, he approached the director, Ed Roberts, and proposed that the center combine efforts with the Black Panthers to offer assistance to people with disabilities in East Oakland’s mostly Black community. The relationships he built across these two communities would prove vital during the 504 sit-in two years later.
The demonstration that day, at the San Francisco Health Education and Welfare (HEW) office, began outside with speeches and chants. A group of protesters then went inside, demanding to know when HEW Secretary Joseph Califano would sign the regulations. Despite several attempts to remove them from the building, the protesters held strong. After Lomax sent word to the Black Panthers that the protesters intended to stay put, the group mobilized, delivering ribs, fried chicken and a message of solidarity. “Brad was able to get the Black Panther Party to see that this was critical to the work that they were doing,” reported a demonstration leader. “He was the linchpin for that.”
Though the sit-in received only sporadic coverage by the mainstream news media, the Black Panther’s newspaper followed it closely, with Bradley acting as a go-between for reporters.
After three weeks, Bradley was among 25 demonstrators chosen to travel to Washington, D.C. to pressure Califano to sign the regulations. The trip was successful, and Califano signed the regulations on April 28, 1977. The contingent returned to San Francisco to lead the demonstrators out of the federal building singing, “We Have Overcome.”
While the 504 regulations pushed the government toward accessibility, they applied only to federally funded programs. However, their enactment laid the groundwork for the historic Americans with Disabilities Act, which was passed 13 years later in 1990.
By Any Means Necessary
Dennis Billups was a long-time blind disability rights activist who also demonstrated at the historic 504 Sit-in. Dennis was even called the Chief Morale Officer for the protest.
Recipient of the Holman Prize for Blind Ambition, Dennis provided leadership training for people with disabilities around the world.
According to Dennis, many of the protesters at the 504 sit-in had no idea that sit-ins were happening simultaneously at HEW offices in Washington, Denver, Los Angeles and elsewhere around the country, or that it would last so long. Most had no toothbrushes, no change of clothing and no food. But even as the sit-ins in the other cities fizzled, and even as the government switched off the water supply, cut off telephone lines and restricted movement in and out of the federal building, the San Francisco contingent held strong.
Interviewed on-site at the sit-in, Dennis is quoted as providing this lyrical call to action that framed the whole demonstration:
To my brothers and sisters that are Black and that are handicapped:
Get out there, we need you. Come here, we need you. Wherever you are, we need you. Get out of your bed, get into your wheelchair. Get out of your crutches, get into your canes. If you can’t walk, call somebody, talk to somebody over the telephone; if you can’t talk, write. If you can’t write, use sign language; use any method of communication that is all — all of it is open. We need to do all we can. We need to show the government that we can have more force than they can ever deal with — and that we can eat more, drink more, love more and pray more than they ever knew was happening. …
We shouldn’t have to fight for our rights … they should already be there. But since we have to fight for them, we have an infinite amount of strength to walk.
Many described Dennis as the spiritual leader of the 504 sit-in demonstrators. When news arrived that the regulations had been signed, Dennis marched joyfully out of the building holding a sign that said, “You don’t have to see it to know.”
Deaf Power Now
Claudia Gordon, Esq.
Claudia Gordon is the first female African-American lawyer who is deaf in the United States. She is also the first student who is deaf to graduate from the American University (AU), Washington College of Law. At AU, Claudia specialized in disability rights law and policy. Since earning her juris doctorate, Claudia has been active in working to ensure the rights of people with disabilities are respected.
Claudia currently serves as Special Assistant to the Director of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) in the Department of Labor.
Claudia was born in rural Jamaica. Her mother immigrated to the South Bronx of New York, so that she could earn a better living, and planned to reunite with her children as soon as she could. Claudia and her younger siblings were left in the care of her eldest sister, Mildred Taylor, a schoolteacher. While in Mildred’s care, Claudia suddenly developed severe pain in her middle ears and was taken to a small clinic. With no doctor on duty, the nurse couldn’t figure out what was wrong, only that Claudia was going deaf.
After becoming deaf, Claudia experienced discrimination in Jamaica, as people with disabilities are stigmatized. This discrimination was the catalyst for becoming a lawyer. In Jamaica, Claudia could not get an education, so she moved to the United States, where she attended first a public school, then the Lexington School and Center for the Deaf in New York. While at Lexington, Claudia learned sign language, participated in sports, and became a top student. By the time she reached her junior year in high school, Claudia knew that she wanted to become a lawyer.
Throughout her life, Claudia has received many awards and honors. Prior to attending AU, Claudia graduated from Howard University with a bachelor of arts in political science. At Howard, Claudia was a Patricia Roberts Harris Public Affairs Fellow and a member of the Golden Key National Honor Society. More awards and honors came at American University, where Claudia was an Equal Justice Foundation Fellow, had the Myers Law Scholarship, and the J. Franklin Bourne Scholarship.
In 2002, Claudia received the Paul G. Hearne/AAPD Leadership Award from the American Association of People with Disabilities. She received the Skadden Fellowship (for law graduates working with people with disabilities) that paid her to work at the National Association of the Deaf Law and Advocacy Center. This allowed Claudia to provide direct representation and advocacy for low-income clients who are deaf, with a focus on those from minority groups. Claudia became a consultant to the National Council on Disability and then joined the Department of Homeland Security, where she was the senior policy advisor for the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, and her focus was activities that impacted individuals with disabilities.
Johnnie Lacy was a disability and civil rights leader and a prominent figure in the independent living movement. She focused her efforts on fighting for the rights of people with disabilities, especially people of color. She was the Executive Director for the Community Resources for Independent Living (CRIL), a non-profit that provides services and advocacy for people with disabilities, and was named Woman of the Year by the California State Senate in 1988.
Along with her work at CRIL, Johnnie served on the state Attorney General’s Commission on Disability, was a central figure in Hayward, California’s nonprofit community, and served on the Mayor’s Disability Council for the city and county of San Francisco.
Johnnie often spoke of being excluded from the Black community due to her disability and from the disability community due to being a person of color. As a Black woman in a wheelchair, she educated her communities about race and disability, and served as a role model for many other Black women with disabilities.
Johnnie’s understanding about race was shaped by her upbringing in the Deep South during the late 1930s and 1940s. It was in Louisiana where the stark differences between Blacks and Whites were seen, especially in the school system. Johnnie recounted the way that the education system in the South worked: “The Black schools got the ‘hand-me-down’ books from the white schools, which meant that we were behind academically.”
In 1947, Johnnie and her family moved to California, where she attended her first integrated school and things changed.
At the age of 19, while she was studying nursing at San Francisco General Hospital, Johnnie was diagnosed with polio. Her first symptoms were severe headaches and then blurred vision. It was the combination of both symptoms that made her assume that she needed glasses. It wasn’t until after being urged by the local physician to get care that she realized things were more serious than she imagined.
Johnnie described being tested and learning that she had polio as, “I was in denial. I still thought that it was my eyes and that I had a headache because my eyes needed examining. So when I was finally seen by a doctor to do the spinal tap (which they said wouldn’t hurt, but was really painful), and they sent the spinal fluid to the lab, this is when I found out that I really did have polio.”
They told her not to get out of bed and gradually, Johnnie became completely paralyzed, not even able to breathe. She was placed in an iron lung for two weeks, then went to a respirator, and finally rehabbed for 2-3 years. Because of the polio, Johnnie endured many treatments in order to regain strength.
After some time, Johnnie decided to go back to school and, despite significant difficulty, and pushback from the administration, she graduated from San Francisco State University.
In facing severe discrimination for her disability, Johnnie is quoted as saying, “... if I were just a woman, he could not do this to me; if I were only a person of color, he would not be able to do this to me; and my conclusion was that the only reason that you are able to take this unfair advantage is because I have a disability.”
Johnnie has been described as fearless, ferocious, defiantly black and disabled, confident, and heroic. She was a friend, a mentor, a leader, and a pioneer for the disability community.