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Simone Biles: Olympic & Disability Champion Makes History While Mesmerizing Many

Honoring Women with Disabilities During Women’s History Month

Simone Biles speaking at a podium wearing an orange blazer and white shirt

Simone Biles

Simone Biles is known widely as the Olympic champion who dominated the sport of gymnastics during the 2016 Rio Olympics. Biles has won four consecutive all around titles and is the first female to do so since the 1970’s. She also has competed and won 14 world championship medals.

At a young age, Biles was diagnosed with Attention Deficient Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). Confidential medical records were revealed to the public around the time she was competing in the 2016 Olympics. Since being vocal regarding her ADHD, many have classified her as a hero, especially those who have endured stigma from the disability. She has taken to Twitter vocalizing her disability and what she has been doing to treat her ADHD.

Biles was born on March 14, 1997 in Columbus, Ohio. She was raised and home-schooled by her grandparents in Houston, Texas. Since age six, Biles knew the field of gymnastics was her calling. While visiting a gymnastics center on a field trip, she was fascinated. While there, she began to imitate what she saw the gymnasts doing. The coach at the center noticed. Soon after the field trip, a letter was sent to her home from the gymnastics center, requesting she join tumbling or gymnastics.

She began officially training at age eight. Her first competition was held in Texas where she excelled on both the vault and balance beam. In 2013 she hit senior elite level as the all around winner, winning the U.S. P and G championships, becoming the first African American female to win 10 gold medals.

Her success continued to escalate, winning more titles and world championships. She became one of America’s top hopefuls for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Biles led the gymnastics team known as the “Final 5.” She became an Olympic star displaying her flexibility and creativity and succeeded, winning five Olympic medals, inspiring gymnasts all over the world.

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.

Biles is proving that people with disabilities, with the right support, can change these statistics.

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

Biles is a role model for young female athletes. She excelled with hard work, determination and a positive attitude. 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, and business leader and Shark Tank superstar Barbara Corcoran is dyslexic. Each of them, like Biles, is a positive role model for success.

Biles’ success in his field shows that people with disabilities are not only capable of doing great work, but also possess unique talents to bring to the table. She was chosen as sportswoman of the year by the Woman’s Sports Foundation and was recognized as a finalist for Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year.”

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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