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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. 

This Women’s History Month, I Remember the #MeToo Survivors with Disabilities

For some people, Valentine’s Day is a day to celebrate the one you love. For others, the day is a commercial holiday that either causes financial pressure or feelings of loneliness. For me, it’s the anniversary of my first sexual assault.

Since the #MeToo movement came to light in 2017, the world has learned how dangerous it is to be a woman. We heard countless and horrific stories of sexual assault and harassment that occurred anywhere from the workplace to dark and isolated alleys. Powerful and iconic men were revealed to be serial sex offenders. And women from all walks of life joined together to say, “enough is enough.”

The Vast Majority of Women with Disabilities Are Sexually Assaulted

An alarming 27 percent of women report being sexually assaulted at least once in their lifetime. But a shocking 83 percent of women with disabilities report the same. And they often are victimized more than once, particularly if they have an intellectual disability. People with disabilities can be extremely vulnerable, sometimes helpless to defend themselves. And those with intellectual disabilities are easier to manipulate and considered less trustworthy to police.

It should naturally follow, therefore, that the media would report many more #MeToo stories about women with disabilities than without. However, it has been the exact opposite. Women with disabilities rarely are discussed in terms of sexual assault. When I learned these statistics in 2016, I was desperate to go back in time and tell my younger self that neither of my assaults were my fault. I realized how much of my life I wasted trying to self-correct everything from how I dressed to the friendships I made in attempts to avoid another assault. [continue reading…]

Salma Hayek, Role Model for Latina Women with Disabilities

Honoring Women with Disabilities During Women’s History Month

Salma Hayek wearing a black tank smiling for the camera

Salma Hayek

Actress and producer Salma Hayek Jiménez has embraced her disability – dyslexia – from a very young age. Born in Mexico, Hayek was sent to a Catholic boarding school in New Orleans at the age of 12 where she was quickly expelled for setting all of the nun’s clocks back three hours.

“I’m very lucky I didn’t have it easy, because I’ve learned so much from having to figure out everything on my own and create things for myself,” said Hayek. “Now I can teach what I’ve learned to the next generation.”

After boarding school, Hayek spent time at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City; however, she quit to pursue her acting career and left Mexico for Hollywood. [continue reading…]

Lois Curtis: Woman with Disabilities Fights for Freedom For All

Honoring Women with Disabilities During Women’s History Month

Lois Curtis smiling

Lois Curtis

People with disabilities can thank Lois Curtis for paving the way for them to live in the community while receiving the services they need.

In what many called “the most important decision for people with disabilities in history,” the Olmstead Decision justified the right for people with disabilities to live independently but would take four years to come in effect including being heard in the Supreme Court.

At the center of the 1999 lawsuit that cited a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 were Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson, two women with mental and intellectual disabilities. They were held in Georgia Regional Hospital for years after their treatment team determined they were able to live in the community because the state did not want to give them the funds they needed to live independently.

While she was growing up, Curtis was diagnosed with intellectual and mental disabilities. As a result, she would get into trouble constantly – at home and at school. The police were called several times and they would take her to jail or to a mental hospital. [continue reading…]

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.

[continue reading…]

3,736 Women with Disabilities Lose Jobs in the U.S.

Washington, D.C., March 13 – As we celebrate Women’s History Month, RespectAbility recognizes the contributions made and the important presence of women to the United States. It is important to note this includes more than 20.9 million women living with a disability in the U.S., more than 10.2 million of which are working-age (18-64). Therefore, we would like to reflect on the realities and challenges that continue to shape the lives of women with disabilities.

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 are 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. [continue reading…]

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. [continue reading…]

Cristina Sanz: First Hispanic with a Disability As Part of Ensemble Cast to Be on an Emmy Award-Winning Show

Honoring Women with Disabilities During Women’s History Month

headshot of Cristina Sanz wearing a blue top

Cristina Sanz

Fans of the hit A&E docu-series Born this Way know Cristina Sanz as a lovable, fun and family-oriented dancer and romantic. In 2016, Sanz became the first Hispanic woman with a disability as part of an ensemble cast to be on an Emmy award-winning show. In 2018, she shattered stigmas by getting married to her longtime fiancé Angel Callahan.

The two already had been dating for five years before the show premiered. Their desire to live an independent life together – and get married – was a consistent plot line throughout the show. The first season ended with their engagement; the fourth season finale was an hour-long episode featuring the wedding between these two individuals with developmental disabilities.

“I wanted to show everyone that you can have a disability and get married,” Sanz told People magazine.

Her wedding, moving out on her own and working at two jobs, are things her parents never imagined as Cristina was growing up.

“I will not wake up waiting for my daughter to come back from a date like my mother did for me,” her mother, Beatriz Sanz, said she used to think. But, Sanz was the first of her siblings to get married. [continue reading…]

Frida Kahlo, Role Model for Artists, People with Disabilities and Bisexual Women

Honoring Women with Disabilities During Women’s History Month

Frida Kahlo black and white headshot

Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo, a Mexican woman who had multiple disabilities including polio as a child and spinal and pelvis damage from a car accident, became a world-renowned self-portrait painter. She has since served as a role model for generations of artists, people with disabilities and bisexual women.

At the age of six, Kahlo was bedridden with polio. The polio virus caused damage to her right leg and foot. She was left with a limp. Her father thought that playing soccer, wrestling and swimming would help her recover.

As a teenager, she was in a car accident. A steel handrail was impaled into her hip and came out the other side. Her spine and pelvis were damaged significantly. While in recovery, she began to paint. [continue reading…]

Selena Gomez Serves as Role Model for Young Women with Disabilities

Honoring Women with Disabilities During Women’s History Month

Selena Gomez wearing a black dress, smiling broadly

Selena Gomez

Three years ago, pop star and actress Selena Gomez strutted onto Ellen DeGeneres stage wearing a black floor-length dress and heels. Her hair was slicked back and wavy. Her face held a look of intention. She sat with both a stiff back and smile and told Ellen and the world what it is like to live with Lupus.

“It is an autoimmune disease; I will have it forever and you just have to take care of yourself,” Gomez told Ellen and the audience. “I can relate to people.”

Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease that causes the body to attack itself, unable to differentiate between its own healthy tissue and invaders. According to the Lupus Foundation of America, 1.5 million people have Lupus in America and five million have it worldwide. [continue reading…]

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