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#RespectTheAbility

Muhammad Ali—Dyslexic Role Model Fought in the Ring and for Racial and Social Justice

Photo of Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali was known to many as a champion boxer and a man who fought for racial and social justice his entire life. He acquired Parkinson’s at age 42 and became a role model for people with physical disabilities. What many may not know, however, is that Ali also had dyslexia.

“As a high school student, many of my teachers labeled me dumb…I knew who the real dummies were. I barely graduated…There was no way I was going to college—I never even thought about it. I could barely read my textbooks,” Ali has told others.

When Ali was growing up, teachers and researchers did not know much about dyslexia or how to help children who struggle with the disability. Ali was not aware of the fact that he had dyslexia, either, which led to a lack of confidence in his ability as a student.

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One Woman with Disabilities Fight for Freedom For All

Lois Curtis smiling

Lois Curtis

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

In what was 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.

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Olympic & Disability Champion Simone Biles Makes History While Mesmerizing Many

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.

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Clarence Page Credits ADHD with Making Him a Better Journalist

Clarence Page headshot wearing black suit, white shirt and glasses

Clarence Page

Clarence Page is a highly accomplished journalist. He is a Pulitzer-winning syndicated columnist for the Tribune network, a member of the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board, a regular contributor to The News Hour with Jim Lehrer and has appeared on The McLaughlin Group, NBC’s The Chris Matthews Show, ABC’s Nightline and BET’s Lead Story.

He is also an African American who identifies as having Attention Deficient Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), which can affect basic functioning due to hyperactivity and a pattern of inattention. Page has been outspoken about having ADHD and educating people about his disability.

One-in-five Americans has a disability, and polls show that most of them want to work. Yet 70 percent of working-age Americans with disabilities are outside of the workforce. There are 5.6 million African Americans with a disability in the United States. Only 28.7 percent of African Americans with disabilities are employed in the United States compared to 72 percent of African Americans without disabilities.

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First Deaf African American Lawyer Claudia Gordon, Anti-Discrimination Advocate

Claudia Gordon standing in front of two flags, smiling.

Claudia Gordon

Claudia Gordon is recognized as one of former President Barack Obama’s key advisors for disability issues. She was also the first deaf African American lawyer to graduate law school and pursue a career devoted to helping individuals with disabilities. Today she works in a senior role at Sprint, a company with many accessibility features that enable people who are deaf to communicate.

At the age of eight, Gordon began to develop severe pain in her ears, which resulted in her becoming permanently deaf. She faced discrimination in her own home country of Jamaica and realized she could not stay there, so she attended high school and college in America. By junior year of high school, she knew being a lawyer was the career she wanted to pursue. Gordon never let doubt or fear be a hindrance in her life. She made the best out of her disability and prospered. 

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Highlighting African Americans with Disabilities in Honor of Black History Month

Headshot of Daymon John in grayscale with text: #RespectTheAbility, “I see the world in a different way than most people and for me, that’s been a positive thing.” - Daymond John, Black History Month 2018

“I see the world in a different way than most people and for me, that’s been a positive thing.” – Shark Tank star and businessman Daymond John, who has Dyslexia

Rockville Md., Feb. 5 – As we celebrate Black History Month, which takes place every February, RespectAbility recognizes the contributions made and the important presence of African Americans to the United States. It is important to note this includes more than 5.6 million African Americans living with a disability in the U.S., 3.4 million of which are working-age African Americans with disabilities. Therefore, we would like to reflect on the realities and challenges that continue to shape the lives of African Americans with disabilities.

Only 28.7 percent of working-age African Americans with disabilities are employed in the U.S. compared to 72 percent of working-age African Americans without disabilities. This is in line with the rest of the country, with fully one-in-five Americans having a disability and just 30 percent of those who are working-age being employed, despite polls showing that most of them want to work. This leads to approximately 40 percent of African Americans with disabilities living in poverty compared to 22 percent of African Americans without disabilities.

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Deafblind Lawyer Haben Girma Advocates for Disability Rights

headshot of Haben Girma wearing a blue dress and pearls

Haben Girma

Haben Girma has been advocating for herself since she attended elementary school in Oakland. She became the first Deafblind person to graduate from law school when she earned her degree from Harvard Law School in 2013. She is a civil rights attorney who advocates for disability rights, a public speaker who travels the country changing people’s perceptions of the disability community in the media and has been featured in Forbes “30 Under 30” and on NBC and NPR.

In 1983, five years before Girma was born, her mother Saba Gebreyesus fled Eritrea, a city in Africa with approximately six million people, taking two weeks to walk to Sudan and sleeping in trees “surrounded by hungry hyenas.” But she was determined to give Girma the opportunities her son wasn’t given; he also was born deafblind.

After her mom settled in California, Girma was born in Oakland in 1988. In elementary school, she learned Braille and later used a Bluetooth keyboard hooked up to a Braille reader to communicate with others. At school, she gained access to the materials she needed to be able to learn. She credits her supportive teachers and classmates, accessible materials such as interpreters and other accommodations, and developed study skills and homework strategies for her success.

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Actress with Cerebral Palsy Diana Elizabeth Jordan is Veteran of 40 Shows, Shorts and Movies

Diana Elizabeth Jordan smiling in front of a tree

Diana Elizabeth Jordan

Diana Elizabeth Jordan, an award winning actress, writer, producer and director, is an important figure in the conversation about the inclusivity or lack thereof of people with disabilities in Hollywood. She found a way to get into and around Hollywood, with the help of her faith and self-confidence.

“There have been plenty of times in my life where I haven’t felt positive but I try my best to let the positive outweigh the negative and I think my faith in God has a lot to do with that,” said Jordan.

Jordan has cerebral palsy, which mildly affects her speech and gait. She has been acting professionally since she graduated from college. She began her career working in Chicago Theater. She also was the first actor with a disability to obtain Masters of Fine Arts in Acting from California State University Long Beach in 2001.

Since beginning her career, Diana has built an impressive list of over 40 credits in theater, film and television including her first T.V. guest star role on The WB’s 7th Heaven in 2004. The majority of roles she has been cast in have not been disability specific. It has always been important to her to be cast in roles where her disability is incidental to the character or storyline.

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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.

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Whoopi Goldberg: Talented Actress, Comedienne and Talk Show Host Lives with Dyslexia

Whoopi Goldberg headshot wearing a gray sweater

Comedienne, actress and talk show host Whoopi Goldberg

Deloris in Sister Act, Whoopi on The View, Shenzi the Hyena in The Lion King—many of us can connect at least one character in a favorite show or movie with Whoopi Goldberg. Not as many can recognize her as a person with dyslexia. Dyslexia is a general term for disorders that involves difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters, and other symbols, but does not affect general intelligence. Indeed, singer and activist Harry Belafonte, Shark Tank star and businessman Daymond John and businessman Richard Branson all have dyslexia like Goldberg.

Goldberg is recognized widely for her work. She is one of few people to win an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony award. However, as a child, Goldberg constantly faced negative feedback. People used to think she was lazy or not trying. She dropped out of school by age 17 and continued her education by going to museums and public lectures, according to the Child Mind Institute.

“What I remember about being a kid was that I felt pretty protected, I wasn’t afraid, and I had a mother who understood after a while that there was something different about the way I learn,” Goldberg recalls in talking with the Child Mind Institute.

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