International Women's Day 2024

12 women who helped to shape disability rights history

12 women who helped to shape disability rights history

Did you know that March is women’s history month? Did you also know that March 8 is International Women’s Day. And did you also know that March is Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month?

It’s a month dedicated to recognizing and celebrating the unique diversity that different groups bring to our society. In honor of those groups, we’ve compiled a list of women with disabilities whose tireless dedication to the disability community not only resulted in history-making change but also helped shape disability advocacy.

Read on for a peek at these incredible women and their work …

Agatha is looking directly at the camera with a neutral facial expression. Her hair is tied up into a bun and she is wearing a dark dress with a high collar.

Agatha Tiegel Hanson (1873-1959)

Agatha was a poet and women’s rights advocate who was deaf. She was the first woman to graduate from Gallaudet College and spent much of her life advocating for the education of all women. This included those who are deaf.

Her views were revolutionary, arguing that women were limited by cultural factors not biological inferiority. She also believed that despite this oppression, women have silently contributed to culture, society and the betterment of humanity throughout history. Her arguments, outlined in “The Intellect of Woman” set the stage for future women’s rights activists.

This is a profile picture of Helen Keller. She is looking off to the side with her eyes closed. She has a slight smile and her hair is tied into a bun. She is wearing a high collared white dress.

Helen Keller (1180-1968)

A well-known historical figure, Helen Keller’s legacy of disability activism remains an influence to this day. She became known at a young age for her use of fingered speech. She used her fame to advocate for people who are blind for much of her life. Keller argued the commonalities between “the sighted” and “the blind” and recognized that all people have a part to play in the greater whole of humanity.

In addition to her advocacy for the disability community, she was a socialist, suffragist and supporter of the NAACP.

Johnnie Lacy is looking directly at the camera. She is a person of color and is smiling happily. She has close cut, natural hair and is wearing a button-up blouse.

Johnnie Lacy (1937-2010)

Johnnie was a disability rights activist whose advocacy work played a prominent part in the Independent Living Movement. At the age of 19, she contracted polio and became paralyzed. Because of this she was blocked from enrolling in San Francisco University, which marked the beginning of her advocacy work.

She earned the right to attend classes and went on to help found the Center for Independent Living in California in 1981. This organization was one of the first in the country to encourage and empower people with disabilities to live their own independent lives. She also served as the director for the Community Resources for Independent Living, which connects people with disabilities to invaluable resources such as transportation, housing assistance and advocacy services.

Kitty is sitting in a room in her wheelchair. There are reporters all around her, holding microphones to her face. She is wearing glasses and looking slightly down at the microphones as she speaks.

Kitty Cone (1944-2015)

Kitty was a civil rights and antiwar activist throughout the 1960s. It was an appearance on Jerry Lewis’s Muscular Dystrophy Telethon to speak about her wheelchair use that ignited her passion for disability rights.

She worked alongside Judy Heumann throughout the 1970s, becoming an integral part of the Independent Living Movement. She initially focused her attention on access to public transportation in San Francisco; however, quickly moved on to national causes. Kitty was instrumental in carrying out the Section 504 Sit-In, serving as a spokesperson and strategist. She also helped organize more than 100 people with disabilities as they occupied the fourth floor of the HEW office in San Francisco for 28 days. And like Heumann, her advocacy work paved the way for key disability rights legislation.

This is a picture of Judy's profile. She is at something in front of her, wearing glasses and smiling slightly as she speaks. She has short, dark hair.

Judy Heumann (1947-2023)

Judy is widely recognized as the “Mother of the Disability Rights Movement”. Because of her wheelchair, she faced discrimination and limited opportunities throughout her life. This fueled her passion for change. She founded the Disability in Action group, which was fundamental in organizing many disability rights protests throughout the 1970s and 80s. This includes the famous Section 504 Sit-in in San Francisco in 1977.

Her work led to the development and implementation of key disability rights legislation, including Section 504, the Individuals with Disabilities Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. She had a life-long career in disability advocacy. This included co-founding the World Institute of Disability, serving as the US Assistant Secretary for the Office of Special Education, serving as the World Bank's first Adviser on Disability and Development, and serving as the first Special Advisor for International Disability Rights in the US Department of State.

This is a profile picture of Joyce. She is a person of color, learning forward and looking intently at whatever is in front of her. Her face is serious. She has short, curled hair and is wearing a patterned blouse.

Joyce Ardell Jackson (1947-2013)

Joyce was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 12 and, over the course of her life, underwent more than 50 operations. She was determined to lead an independent life, which led to work with a number of California-based telecommunications firms. It also led her to a role at the Center for Independent Living – a defining period of her life.

She attended the 1977 Section 504 Sit-In and became one of 22 attendees with disabilities to travel to Washington DC. She met with President Carter’s administration officials about implementing Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. This work introduced life-changing disability rights and paved the way for the Americans with Disabilities Act. Joyce went on to serve three terms on the board of the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities.

Mary Lou and Patrisha are sitting together on a bench outside. Both are smiling happily as they look at the camera. Mary Lou (left) is wearing large red-framed reading glasses and a white jacket. She has short, brown hair. Patrisha is wearing big, round sunglasses. She is wearing a blue jacket and has shoulder-length, brown hair.

Mary Lou Breslin (1944-present) and Patrisha Wright (1949-present)

Like a few on this list, Mary Lou and Patrisha played significant roles in the disability rights movement through the 1970s and 80s. In fact, both women worked with Judy Heumann and were part of the Section 504 Sit-In. After their work at the historic 1977 event, the pair cofounded the Disability Rights and Education Defense Fund (DREDF). To this day, this grassroots organization focuses on disability rights policy reform and litigation.

Patrisha and the DREDF were key players in getting the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990. Not only was this the largest civil rights law passed in the US since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but it's also the most comprehensive piece of legislation in US history outlawing discrimination based on disability.

Marilyn is playing tennis in her Quickie wheelchair. She is intently looking at an oncoming ball as she swings her racket toward it. She has long, permed, brown hair and is wearing white althletic clothing.

Marilyn Hamilton (1949-present)

Marilyn’s contribution to disability advocacy is a little bit different than most on this list; however, the impact of her work was life changing for many people in the disability community. After a hang gliding accident that resulted in paraplegia, Marilyn designed the first lightweight wheelchair.

Named the Quickie, her wheelchair used hang gliding technology to create a lighter, fully adjustable wheelchair that was more maneuverable and customizable. The invention changed the outlook on using a wheelchair for many people. It also made wheelchairs more accessible and revolutionized wheelchair use in sports. In addition to the Quickie, Marilyn started several nonprofits dedicated to wheelchair users, including women and children.

Barbara is sitting in her wheelchair in her apartment. She has a ventilator in her mouth. She is looking off to the side with a neutral, friendly face. She has short, dark hair and is wearing a loose-fitting black shirt.

Barbara Waxman Fiduccia (1955-2001)

Barbara is one of the first disability advocates to openly discuss the sexual and reproductive rights of people with disabilities. Throughout the 1990s she critiqued disability rights movements of the time for overlooking sexuality and the rights of people with disabilities to have children.

She also took on the Social Security Agency in a legal battle over eligibility requirements. She highlighted and fought against requirements that made it nearly impossible for two people with disabilities on Supplemental Security Income to get married without losing benefits. After successfully campaigning to get those requirements changed, she married Daniel Fiduccia in 1996. 

Claudia is giving a speech in a theatre. There is a red curtain behind her and she is wearing a sleeveless white dress. She is a woman of color with shaved, natural hair. She has a serious look on her face with both hands up with her pointer fingers up as if to mark the importance of her speech.

Claudia Gordon (1972-present)

Claudia is the first deaf student to graduate from American University’s law school. She is also the first black, deaf lawyer in the US. She lost her hearing at the age of 8 due to a middle ear infection. Her mother migrated to the US with her where she attended the Lexington School for the Deaf. She knew from an early age that she wanted to become a lawyer.

Since earning her law degree, she has worked at the National Council on Disability, the National Coalition for Disability Rights and Homeland Security, making sure that emergency preparedness plans are accessible to people with disabilities. She was appointed to the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Program by President Obama, where she currently works to protect workers, promote diversity and enforce equal opportunity laws.

Alice is looking directly at the camera. She is sitting in her wheelchair with her BiPap machine. She is smiling slightly. She has short, black hair slicked back and is wearing red lipstick along with a tiger-striped sweater.

Alice Wong (1974-present)

Alice is a Chinese-American disability rights activist with spinal muscular atrophy. She decided to pursue a career in disability advocacy after studying disability history in college. In 2013, she was appointed to the National Council on Disability where she advised President Obama and Congress on practices, policies and programs that affect people with disabilities.

She also founded the Disability Visibility Project – an online community that encourages and supports people with disabilities to tell their own stories. This is achieved by championing disability history and culture, publishing original works, building accessible online spaces for sharing and connecting, amplifying the work of people with disabilities and organizations, and collaborating with other activists and organizations.