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Close up black and white photo of Maya Angelou wearing sunglasses

Maya Angelou, Legendary Poet and Civil Rights Activist Who Had Disability, Inspires Generations

Image of Maya Angelou from around 1970, black and white photo of her face looking to the side

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was an award-winning author, poet, civil rights activist, college professor and screen writer. Most recognized for her literary works, Angelou was and remains among the most influential woman of her time. After passing away in 2014, Angelou still is widely remembered and honored for her hard work and perseverance over decades.

As a child, Angelou was sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She told her brother, who told the rest of their family. While the boyfriend was found guilty, he was jailed for just one day. Four days later, he was murdered, with the theory that Angelou’s uncles did so. As a result, Angelou became mute for almost five years.

“I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name,” she later said. “And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone.”

Angelou had selective mutism, an anxiety disorder that causes a child to not speak due to physical and psychological trauma they endured. In the five-year span that she experienced this, her listening, observing and memorizing skills improved and her love of books expanded. This helped her later when she began working in becoming successful in her career.

Maya Angelou’s Early Life

Angelou was born April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. She began her career as a performer in the 1950’s after receiving a scholarship to the California Labor School where she studied dance and acting. She performed in many Broadway productions in her early career. She eventually branched out into writing poetry as well as autobiographical books. Some of her most notable poems include Phenomenal Woman and Caged Bird. One of her most popular books, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” details her own life experiences of growing up in America during segregation and Jim Crow. Angelou also directed, wrote, produced and starred in various films and television shows. She is credited for writing the screenplay for the 1970’s film, Georgia, Georgia. 

Angelou received several awards throughout her career including two NAACP image awards, a Pulitzer award and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by former President Barack Obama.

Angelou continues to influence past and current generations with her variety of works. She has taught many, specifically women, that confidence and being comfortable in your own skin no matter what your background is can take you far. She was truly a remarkably phenomenal women herself. Her works remain legendary and uniquely relatable to the everyday lives of men, women and children across the globe.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants focuses on how trauma or living with disability can cause people to develop exceptional innovation, creativity and coping skills. Clearly Angelu had such skills.

People with disabilities of all backgrounds can be amongst the highest achievers on earth. Harriet Tubman had Epilepsy, actress Halle Berry lives with diabetes, business leader and Shark Tank superstar Daymond John is dyslexic and Stevie Wonder is blind. Each of them, like Angelou, is a positive role model for success.

Meet the Author

Tameir Yeheyes

Tameir Yeheyes is passionate about serving the community, making a difference in the world and working hard on behalf of people with disabilities. Upon graduation, she hopes to go into either nonprofit work or government agency employment.

12 comments… add one
  • Julie Apr 25, 2019, 10:17 pm

    Selective Mutism is not a result of physical of psychological trauma. Selective Mutism is an anxiety related disorder where the person speaks in some situations but not others.

  • Meri Mar 1, 2022, 6:12 pm

    @Julie, thank you for that clarification. I believe that Maya made a conscious choice because she believed that her words had hurt someone, and actually killed them.

    She learned at that young age that words CAN in fact be very powerful. Eventually I believe she came to the conclusion that since words WERE powerful they could also be a power for good. That when used correctly they could help people instead of hurting them.

    Regardless of how she is interpreted this was an amazing woman. Her words have helped many! So many of us are blessed to have had her.

  • Project TheraPaint Jul 13, 2022, 11:05 pm

    This is a great article – learning about Maya’s experiences and how her love for listening, observing, and writing began is powerful and intriguing. Thanks for the content!

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