Celebrating Women in Wheelchairs

March is Women’s History Month – a time for us to celebrate the accomplishments and contributions of women throughout history. Often, women’s accomplishments are overlooked, and even more so, the accomplishments of women with disabilities are overlooked. That is why I have chosen to highlight four women in wheelchairs throughout history who were trailblazers.

Barbara Jordan

As a lawyer, politician, and civil rights leader, Barbara Jordan spent her life helping to make our country a better place for all of us. Barbara epitomized the word “trailblazer” as she was the first African American voted into the Senate in Texas and she was the first southern African American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. In fact, her life was defined by a series of firsts – she was the first African American woman to deliver the keynote address at a Democratic National Convention and, even in her death she was paving the way as the first African American woman to be buried in the Texas State Cemetery.

Barbara had Multiple Sclerosis, but unfortunately, she did not publicly disclose her disability. It may have been a sign of the times or she may have been insecure about her disability – it’s not clear why she did not want people to know she was disabled. What is clear is that she was an incredible woman with a disability who powerfully spoke about inclusion and creating a nation where everyone is treated equally.

Stella Young

Stella was a proud disabled woman from Australia who passed away in 2014. Though Stella worked as a secondary school teacher for a time, she is best known for her journalism and comedy, which often featured disability themes. Stella was adamant that people with disabilities should not be viewed as inspirational for simply existing in the world. This message was popularized after Stella gave a TEDx talk called “I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much.”

Her passion for disability rights and her method of using comedy to deliver messages helped people to feel comfortable challenging their own perceptions about disability. Stella died unexpectedly at the age of 32, but her message lives on in the videos of her speeches and in the pieces that she wrote. Stella helped to frame disability in a completely new way that pushes society to value disabled people for their accomplishments instead of valuing us simply for our disabilities. 

Laura Hershey

A proud activist, feminist, and writer, Laura Hershey advocated for disability rights and the dignity of people with disabilities. As a child, Laura was a poster child for Jerry Lewis Telethons that often portrayed children with disabilities as less than human. As an adult, Laura protested these telethons and was even cited for trespassing at one because she felt that the Muscular Dystrophy Association could find “ways to fundraise without demeaning the people they are trying to serve.” Laura also protested for access and disability rights as a member of the grassroots disability rights group ADAPT.

Laura attended two U.N. conferences on women’s rights. She also wrote poetry which has been featured in many publications. One of her poems “You Get Proud by Practicing” demonstrates how disabled people can become proud of their disability identities and shares some of her experiences, such as sitting in a jailhouse with other activists – a consequence of protesting for access by blocking buses that did not have wheelchair lifts. She finished a book of poems called Spark Before Dark shortly before she died in 2010.

Eliza Suggs

Eliza was an author and lecturer in the late 1800s and early 1900s and the daughter of former slaves. Eliza was prone to breaking bones even from gentle movements and her parents did not expect her to live very long. However, she was eventually diagnosed with Rickets (which is now known as Osteogenesis Imperfecta) and was not able to go outside to play with the other children. Though Eliza could not play, she was able to go to school which allowed Eliza to gain an education and eventually write her own book, Shadow and Sunshine. Her book discusses the lives of her parents, her own life as a woman with a disability, her Christian faith, and the horrors of slavery.

At this time in history, many disabled people were on display at circuses, museums, or “freak shows” for money (sometimes voluntarily with pay, but many times by force after their parents or others would sell disabled people to be put on display). Eliza refused to display herself, stating “”It has never been a temptation to me to want to go with a show or to be in a museum for money making purposes. . . Such places are not for me. God wants me to live for Him, and I could not do it there.”

About Stephanie Woodward: Stephanie is a brand ambassador for Quantum Rehab® and works as a disability rights activist. She has received many awards for helping communities become more accessible, as well as for her actions in fighting for the rights of disabled individuals as it relates to Medicaid and other support services. Click here to learn more about Stephanie. 

Return to Women’s History Month