Living Their Best Life: An Account of Disability in the Black Community

Living Their Best Life: An Account of Disability in the Black Community

By: Ebony Cole

Edits By: April Meredith


Black (African-American) History Month is observed annually every February in the United States. This is a humbling yet exciting time to remember the adversities overcome and accomplishments made by people of the African diaspora. We would especially like to recognize the challenges and celebrate the victories of some notable figures with disabilities in the Black community. Their lives tell of flourishment and bloom – uplifting stories that prove no matter the hand you were dealt you can do wonders.


  • In 1860 a young man named Tom Wiggins would become the first Black person to perform at the White House for a sitting President. According to “The Ballad of Blind Tom” he was a slave with autism and a visual impairment. He would twitch and rock consistently, but there was more to this young savant. As a toddler, he could mimic any sound and repeat conversations up to ten minutes long verbatim.  His affinity for sound made the harmonies of the piano an infatuation he could not deny.  When Tom played the piano he would no longer rock or twitch.  By the age of six “Blind Tom” played in nearly every affluent Georgia home. Early on his talent was limited to familiar and less complex tunes, but by the time he was sixteen years old, he was able to add more complicated pieces to his melodic reserve.  Tom astounded his audience with his talents. Onlookers explained his amazing talents as a second sight or a gift from the spirits.  Throughout his career, Tom was exploited for his talents and did not reap the benefits of the multimillion-dollar fortune he acquired.  Tom died at the age of sixty from a stroke.  He is honored with a plaque in Columbus, Georgia and another in Brooklyn, New York.
  • Renowned Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman had epilepsy, narcolepsy and migraine headaches.
  • Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles champions the world of gymnastics with ADHD.
  • Curtis Pride is deaf, was a professional baseball player who batted left-handed for six major league teams, and currently coaches college baseball.
  • states that women’s rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer spent much her life fighting for the civil rights of Black people and women but had a severe limp and permanent kidney damage.
  • Actor Danny Glover is a person with epilepsy and dyslexia who helped create the first Department of Black Studies and School of Ethnic Studies in the US at San Francisco State University.
  • The 55th Governor of New York State, David Patterson is legally blind.
  • President Barack Obama had the first Black deaf lawyer on his advisory team. Her name is Claudia Gordon and she continues to advocate for people with disabilities through multiple non-profit and government agencies.
  • Barbara Jordon had multiple sclerosis and became the first black woman from the south to serve in Congress.
  • Adored and admired poet Maya Angelou experienced selective mutism due to the severe abuse and sexual assault she incurred as a child. Angelou spent 5 years in total silence. She used the time to hone her literary craft, in turn empowering peers with mutism to find their own unique voice with as much strength as one who verbally speaks.
  • Johnnie Lacy, a leader in the independent living community who focused on the rights of people of color with disabilities, used a wheelchair. She often spoke of being excluded from the black community for having a disability and for being a woman of color.


Many other stories of strong, influential black people with disabilities have been documented throughout American history. Countless black men and women fought for the rights of all people of color. We invite you to research them, acknowledge their efforts, and honor the impact they made in our country. This Black History Month, Empower Tennessee salutes them and continues their work to cultivate a barrier-free, beautifully diverse, all-inclusive society.

Ebony Cole is the newest addition to the Empower Tennessee family, joining our team as an Independent Living Specialist. You may learn more about Ebony in her employee bio:

Ebony Cole