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A painting of Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman, Legendary Poet and Civil Rights Activist with Epilepsy, Inspires Generations

Honoring Women with Disabilities During Women’s History Month

A portrait of Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman is known as one of the most influential leaders of our nation. She was a former slave turned abolitionist who bravely risked her life to free both slaves and her own family members through the underground railroad.

Tubman was a Maryland native. She was born around 1820 in Dorchester, County, Md. Her mission was getting as many men, women and children out of bondage into freedom.

When Tubman was a teenager, she acquired a traumatic brain injury when a slave owner struck her in the head. This resulted in her developing epileptic seizures and hypersomnia. Unfortunately, Tubman’s experience of violence occurred on a daily basis which made her brain injury worse.

“I had crossed the line. I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land,” she often is quoted as saying.

It is through determination, courage and strength that Tubman was able to free many slaves. She did not let her disability keep her or those around her enslaved. Tubman is a prominent figure and was not afraid to be a leader as an African American, a woman and a person with a disability. She is truly a hero to all.

In 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department announced that Harriet Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson on the 20-dollar bill. While that has not yet happened, it would be a great way to honor Tubman and her achievements that impacted America in many ways.

Just 34.6 Percent of Working-Age Women With Disabilities Today Are Employed

More than 20.9 million women live with a disability in the U.S., including more than 10.2 million of which are working-age (18-64).

Fully one-in-five Americans have a disability and studies show that most of them want to work. Yet 70 percent of working-age Americans with disabilities are outside of the workforce. Only 34.6 percent of working-age women with disabilities (3.5 million) are employed in the U.S. compared to 82.5 percent of working-age women without disabilities. This is in line with the rest of the country, with fully one-in-four American adults having a disability just 37 percent of those who are working-age being employed, despite polls showing that most of them want to work. This leads to approximately 22.6 percent of women with disabilities living in poverty compared to 14.7 percent of women without disabilities.

Women of Color with Disabilities Continue to Face Additional Barriers

The 2018 Annual Disability Statistics Compendium Supplement does not have female employment disaggregated by race. However, with more than 7,500 African Americans with disabilities leaving the workforce last year, it is likely that women of color with disabilities have additional barriers.

There are more than 5.6 million African Americans living with a disability in the U.S. Out of more than three million working-age African Americans with disabilities, barely 934,589 have jobs. According to the Compendium, just 28.6 percent of U.S. African-American civilians with disabilities ages 18-64 living in the community had a job, compared to 73.7 percent of blacks without disabilities.

Today there are 1.1 million black students (K-12) with diagnosed disabilities in America; however, the deck is stacked against them. Due to redlining and other factors, many of them go to highly under-resourced schools that do not have enough special educators. Moreover, while it is easy to see and understand when someone is deaf and/or blind, frequently “invisible disabilities” such as ADHD and dyslexia are not diagnosed and students do not get the supports they need to achieve.

Frustrated, students with undiagnosed or addressed disabilities can act out and become suspended. Studies show that when students miss too many days, they get so far behind in class that it can lead to them dropping out of school and entering the school-to-prison pipeline. Today there are more than 750,000 people with disabilities behind bars in America. Indeed, half of all women who are incarcerated in America have a disability. The majority of them do not have high school diplomas, are functionally illiterate and are people of color. There are more approximately 150,000 people who are deaf incarcerated today, and approximately the same number are blind.

Overall, only 66 percent of students with disabilities graduate high school compared to 84 percent of students without disabilities. However, only 62 percent of black students with disabilities graduate high school compared to 76 percent of black students without disabilities.

Leading the Way

People with disabilities of all backgrounds can be amongst the highest achievers on earth. Haben Girma became the first Deafblind person to graduate from law school when she earned her degree from Harvard Law School in 2013. Performer Selena Gomez lives with lupus, business leader and Shark Tank superstar Barbara Corcoran is dyslexic and gymnast Simone Biles has ADHD. Each of them, like Tubman, is a positive role model for success.

All throughout Women’s History Month, we will post pieces about female role models with disabilities. These women are featured examples of RespectAbility’s #RespectTheAbility campaign, which highlights successful individuals with disabilities, as well as companies that employ people with disabilities. Read more today:

Research assistance from RespectAbility Fellow Tameir Yeheyes.

Meet the Author

Lauren Appelbaum
Lauren Appelbaum

Lauren Appelbaum is the communications director of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for and with people with disabilities, and managing editor of The RespectAbility Report, a publication at the intersection of disability and politics. Previously she was a digital researcher with the NBC News political unit. As an individual with an acquired invisible disability - Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy - she writes about the intersection of disability, employment, Hollywood and politics. Appelbaum currently oversees RespectAbility’s outreach to Hollywood to promote positive, accurate, diverse and inclusive media portrayals on TV and in film. To reach her, email LaurenA@RespectAbility.org.

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