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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

Honoring Women with Disabilities During Women’s History Month

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.

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 Womanand 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.

Just 34.6 Percent of Working-Age Women with Disabilities 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

Our nation’s economy is strongest when it is inclusive of the value that diverse talent brings to the workplace. Haben Girma became the first Deafblind person to graduate from law school when she earned her degree from Harvard Law School in 2013.Harriet Tubman had epilepsy, 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 Angelou, is a positive role model for success.

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 woman 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.

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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