10 Badass Disabled Women You Should Know About

My beloved home/current/forever (?) state of California recently voted to include more LGBT people and narratives in its public school curriculum. Personally, I’m all for that revamp—I’ve long said that the scariest part of coming out, for me, was not having language to describe what was happening. Even in an incredibly progressive family, nobody explained that some people are gay (a function of my parents legitimately not seeing it as a big enough deal to mention). Who knows how much time I could have saved by learning about queer people in class? I’m thrilled that the anxious baby gays of tomorrow won’t have to build a knowledge base from scratch.

The Board of Education’s unanimous decision made a big splash last week. But most of the coverage I’ve read barely acknowledges another addition to the redesign: disability history. The LA Times left it for the final sentence. ABC News only mentioned it once. Even Mother Jones touted the curriculum as specifically “LGBT-inclusive.” All of which is fine, I guess? But it’s also not surprising.

The first disabled person I remember learning about in school was FDR. And even then, the fact that he had polio almost never came up. When it did, that was it: “he had polio.” Same with Helen Keller. She was deaf and blind; nobody said “she was disabled, too” (and certainly didn’t mention that she was a socialist and birth control advocate). I think that’s because no one, myself included, really considered me disabled. This is back when I thought being just like able-bodied people meant I’d “made it.” And I’d done so well—I was learning about all those straight able-bodied white cis men in AP classes, you guys! Why would I even want the “disabled” label?

Disabled people deserve to know, from our school days, that we’re not just cases, diagnoses, or “not really disabled”; we’re part of a community with its own histories and triumphs. So to help you (and twelve-year-old me) gain a better understanding of disability than “just ignore it,” here are ten disabled women whose names you should learn.*


Tammy Duckworth

“The worst day for me in Washington on the floor of the House is never going to be as bad as me getting blown up. So bring it.”

Tammy Duckworth via Wikipedia

Tammy Duckworth via Wikipedia

Tammy Duckworth is a U.S. Representative from Illinois’ 8th Congressional District—and the first Asian-American Congresswoman from that state, the first disabled woman ever elected to the House of Representatives, and the first member of Congress to be born in Thailand. She’s also a Purple Heart recipient who served as an Army helicopter pilot in Iraq and a Lieutenant Colonel in the Illinois Army National Guard. President Obama appointed her Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in 2009 and she joined the House in 2013. She has a solid record on both LGBT and reproductive rights and, awesomely, stashed her phone inside one of her prosthetics so it wouldn’t get confiscated during the recent “No Bill, No Break” sit-in.

If you want to see Rep. Duckworth in action, enjoy this video of her going to town on a shady IRS contractor, which features the A+ line “I am so glad that you would be willing to play football in prep school again to protect this great country.”

By the way, she’s running for Senate this year.


Judy Heumann

“We’re not going to let a hypocritical society give us a token education and then bury us.”

Judy Heumann via Twitter

Judy Heumann via Twitter

In a glorious victory for poetic justice, Judy Heumann was sent home as a “fire hazard” in elementary school and went on to become the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. The New York City Board of Education initially denied her a teaching license based on doubts that she could get to the bathroom alone or help students in an emergency. She sued for discrimination, won a settlement out of court, and was the first wheelchair user to teach in New York City.

Heumann attended anti-Vietnam War protests while at Long Island University and founded the disability rights group Disabled in Action when she was 22 (what am I doing with my life). DIA became known for political protests, including a demonstration at the Lincoln Memorial in 1972. Heumann also played a key part in the Section 504 sit-in, a seminal moment in disability history that of course no one told you about in school. She now works for the State Department as a Special Advisor for International Disability Rights.


Annette Kellermann

“I can’t swim wearing more stuff than you hang on a clothesline.”

Annette Kellerman via Wikipedia

Annette Kellerman via Wikipedia

Y’all, I had no idea Annette Kellermann existed before researching this piece, and now I don’t know how I lived. She wore leg braces as a kid and her parents signed her up for swimming lessons to help strengthen her muscles. Turns out she was better at it than I will ever be at anything, and she set multiple records at the 1902 championships of New South Wales. She moved from Australia to the U.S. for a vaudeville and film career and became the first major actress to appear nude in a Hollywood movie (1916’s A Daughter of the Gods).

But in my opinion, her finest hour came in 1907, when she wore a one-piece bathing suit to Revere Beach in Massachusetts and was arrested for indecency. She had no interest in the impractical bloomers typical of the time. The judge agreed to let her keep wearing her suit as long as she also wore a cape down to the edge of the water; she subsequently launched her own swimwear line.

Much of the rhetoric around Kellermann’s childhood disability is less than ideal—emphasizing how much she “overcame” or that her legs were “practically normal” by her teen years—so there’s definitely a better story to be told there. (Excuse me while I apply for all the research grants.) As a queer woman, I am also contractually obligated to mention that Kellermann was a lifelong vegetarian with no kids.


Simi Linton

“If I hear the term ‘people with special needs’ one more time, I’m gonna punch somebody. The more they say that phrase, the more it sounds like the burden is on us to keep up.”

Simi Linton via similinton.com

Simi Linton via similinton.com

Simi Linton is a writer, public speaker, activist, and living legend of the disability studies canon. Her books, Claiming Disability and My Body Politic, are essentially required reading for anyone looking to move past the disability-as-tragedy model. (Note: that should be you.) She writes and speaks pointedly about internalized ableism, which is among the nastiest prejudices disabled people face—and one almost nobody acknowledges. Listen to this excerpt from My Body Politic (text version here) if you want to get hooked.

Linton co-directed and starred in the 2014 documentary Invitation to Dance. Much of her work focuses on the arts; she advises film, TV, theatre, museum, and nonprofit organizations on how to “improve and increase the way disability is depicted in all art forms.” Right now 95% of disabled characters on television are played by able-bodied actors. I’d say we need more people like her.


Mia Mingus

“The most visionary work I have had the honor of witnessing and being part of has been work that has been grounded in love and the courage that love requires of us. Whether it is the courage to share our individual and collective anger with each other; the courage to take to the streets; the courage to build alternatives to the state; the courage to be vulnerable and humbled; or the courage to change ourselves for the better.”

Mia Mingus via Oakland Local

Mia Mingus via Oakland Local

Mia Mingus is “a queer physically disabled Korean woman transracial and transnational adoptee, born in Korea, raised in the Caribbean, nurtured in the U.S. South, and now living in Northern California.” Need I say more? This woman knows what’s up. Her resume is towering (Just Beginnings Collaborative Fellow at the Living Bridges Project, member of the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective, 2013 White House Champion of Change, part of The Advocate‘s 2010 40 Under 40, 2008 Creating Change Award recipient from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force), and her writing gets right down to it every single time. You need to read her piece on access intimacy immediately. For real, click that link and don’t come back until you’re done.

Once your head stops spinning, enjoy this interview with the Feminist Wire where she says everything I’ve ever wanted to say, but better; swoon over her at Black Girl Dangerous; bookmark her blog, Leaving Evidence; and follow her on Twitter.


Eliza Suggs

“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.”

Eliza Suggs via Documenting the American South

via Documenting the American South

Eliza Suggs did the unthinkable in 19th-century America: got an education as a disabled Black woman. Born in Illinois to former slaves, she settled in Nebraska with her family after her father became a Free Methodist preacher. Her mother or sister would carry her up the stairs at school so that she could learn alongside other kids her age. There’s not a ton of information out there about her, but the bulk comes from her own book, 1906’s Shadow and Sunshine. Its four sections range from the autobiographical “Sketch of Eliza” to “Scenes from Slavery” based on her mother’s recollections. Eliza later joined the temperance movement, spoke publicly about her Christian faith, and notably refused to be put on display as a museum “oddity” (an expected option for disabled Black people at the time).

One of the most comprehensive and engaging online discussions of Eliza’s life is this blog post—which, conveniently, is written by our next guest…


Vilissa Thompson

“Black women need to see their lives celebrated, their pain validated, and their strength unscorched from the trials endured… be your authentic self; live in your truth, no matter how messy it is; and refuse to conform to fit in.”

Vilissa Thompson via Twitter

Vilissa Thompson via Twitter

I’ve mentioned #DisabilityTooWhite before and will continue to do so until every last one of you scrolls through that thing. Vilissa Thompson called out one of the disability community’s most shameful and enduring problems—overwhelming whiteness—and isn’t about to let it go unchecked. She is the founder and CEO of Ramp Your Voice! and provides consultations for disabled students and veterans along with life coaching, sensitivity training, and presentations and motivational speaking. Her aim is to promote “empowerment, education, inclusion, and self-advocacy” for and among disabled people. RYV recently collaborated with the Disability Visibility Project (you’ll learn more about them in a second) on #GetWokeADA26, a survey and call for stories by disabled people of color reflecting on the Americans with Disabilities Act. Their report is supposed to go up tomorrow (the ADA’s 26th birthday!), so read it, think about it, and share it far and wide.

In the meantime, follow Thompson on Twitter and get your entire summer reading list from her Black Disabled Woman Syllabus.


Cheryl Marie Wade

“‘No’ has fueled many a revolution.”

Cheryl Marie Wade via UltraViolet

Cheryl Marie Wade via UltraViolet

She was called the Queen Mother of Gnarly, so every other nickname can just give up and go home. Cheryl Marie Wade helped usher in the idea of disability culture—which we still haven’t quite got our minds around as a country, but we’d be a lot further from it without her. As a writer, performance artist, and advocate, Wade blew the lid off the assumption that disability should make you sad or keep you in the background. She performed with the excellently-named theater group Wry Crips from 1985 to 1989. Two solo shows followed: A Woman with Juice and Sassy Girl: Memoirs of a Poster Child Gone Awry. She also helped start the AXIS Dance Company, which still exists and is still amazing today.

Watch this performance of hers, even and especially if it makes you uncomfortable. She described herself as a cripple because “it’s like a raised gnarled fist”—and everyone should raise their gnarled fists to her now. She died in 2013 (and no, we were not related. I wish).


Alice Wong

“People with disabilities are usually the subject of a radio story, but rarely is the person creating the story disabled as well. Representation on both sides matters.”

Alice Wong via YouTube

Alice Wong via YouTube

Alice Wong is the founder of the Disability Visibility Project, a community partnership with everyone’s favorite Public Radio Good Cry, StoryCorps. She is constantly forging connections among disabled folks, making sure our stories are heard/read, and demonstrating a level of Twitter mastery I will never achieve. She recently co-founded #CripTheVote, a campaign to get U.S. voters and politicians more invested in disability issues and make disability a greater part of our national conversation. (Looking/cringing at you, 2016 Presidential race.)

Wong won this year’s Paul G. Hearne Leadership Award from the American Association of People with Disabilities and was a Presidential Appointee to the National Council on Disability from 2013 to 2015. She also met President Obama via robot last year. I KNOW.


Stella Young

“No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp. Never. Smiling at a television screen isn’t going to make closed captions appear for people who are deaf. No amount of standing in the middle of a book shop and radiating a positive attitude is going to turn all those books into Braille.”

Stella Young via the Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Stella Young via the Australian Broadcasting Corporation

If you haven’t already seen Stella Young’s 2014 TEDx Sydney talk, do yourself a favor and watch it now. “I’m Not Your Inspiration, Thank You Very Much” solidified Young’s position as a titan of contemporary disability activism and introduced millions of viewers to “inspiration porn”—the (gross) tendency to see disabled people as living, breathing feel-good memes. But Young had already made a name for herself prior to that talk. She edited the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s online magazine Ramp Up, which you can and should still access as an archive. She hosted eight seasons of No Limits, Australia’s first disability culture program, that aired on local TV stations around the country. And her one-woman show, Tales from the Crip, won the Best Newcomer award at the 2014 Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

I never met Stella, but know many people who did, and by all accounts she was just kind of the best. When she died in 2014, the disability rights movement lost one of its sharpest, wittiest, and most self-assured voices. Fortunately her writing is here to stay, and if you enjoy the disability articles on Autostraddle, you owe it to yourself to read it all. Start with her piece on disability and dancing, her lessons for ambulant people, and her letter to her 80-year-old self.

Feeling inadequate yet? Great, me too. Thanks for bringing it, ladies. May we all be so bold.

*I could (and will) make many volumes of this list; “disabled woman” covers way more ground than a single post. The Wish I’d Knowns, who showed up in class without any disability context (shout out to Audre, Sojourner, Harriet, Frida, Flannery, on and on), could fuel an entire series on their own. So this isn’t a definitive ten. It can’t be. I chose them to kick it off, but there are more to come.


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Carrie's body is weird and she's making that work for her. She lives in Los Angeles, where she does a lot of crossword puzzles and longs for a squished-faced dog. Help her get better at Twitter.

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39 Comments

  1. Thumb up 4

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    I was going to just engage in some obligatory Tammy Duckworth fangirling (seriously! At the House sit-in for gun control she smuggled in a phone in her prosthetics! SO AMAZING) But now I can see that every single person on the list deserves my fangirling. Such a great article.

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    Fantastic list!!! Cannot wait to delve into the lives and stories of the kickass women on this list I’d never heard of before! As a disabled woman, I really wish I’d learned more about disability history in school as well aside from the obligatory Helen Keller inspiration porn which erased her incredible, radical, kickass activist work (I say that as someone who is blind). If part 2 of this list is ever created, Laura Hershey should top it!!!! Keep on keeping on! Love all of your work on AS!

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    Okay, first of all, this list is bonkers amazing and I’m so grateful for it.

    Second of all: “As a queer woman, I am also contractually obligated to mention that Kellermann was a lifelong vegetarian with no kids.” I fucking love you. I once tried desperately to bend an English paper in college into a thesis proving Louisa May Alcott was a lesbian. *Almost* made it. (My fave piece of evidence: She wrote to a close female friend how much she had enjoyed their “romp in bed” together. Hello?!!!)

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    I really needed this, Carrie. I’ve been forced to walk with my cane more and more and the realization I may end up with it full-time has hit me like a ton of bricks. Especially since I’ve always put my mind in the box that I’m “not really disabled”. People are always so judgmental. This is a nice reminder that I can still succeed at everything.

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    Tammy Duckworth is the BEST, for everything you listed and more. This year at Pride in Chicago I was waiting with my group to step off for the parade, and her contingent was going by – I heard someone ask if she was actually there personally, or if it was just her supporters. Followed immediately by a massive cheer from the crowd, because Tammy had just appeared at the front doing wild donuts in her electric scooter, dressed head to toe in rainbow gear and waving the Pride flag, just smiling from ear to ear, playing to the crowd, being amazing.

    I adore that woman.

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    Great list of great people. I wish the list included Judy Gilliom, who in my opinion, should be on the top of any list of great women with disabilities.

    Retired Deputy Director of the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities

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    Amazing start to what I hope will be a longer list!
    I love love the idea of a “wish I’d known” list of people we learned about in school, but didn’t know were disabled 🙂
    Also, though harder to research/define, a list of people who had emotional or intellectual disabilities would be awesome too.

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    Thank for this list! As a pwd (low vision), I’ve felt loss over not seeing much representation/role models. Thank you for giving a shout-out to these amazing ladies. I’d recommend adding Barbara Jordan, who had MS and was a kickass speaker.

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    I love seeing Stella on this list. What a fucking legend.

    “I am not a snowflake. I am not a sweet, infantilising symbol of the fragility of life. I am a strong, fierce, flawed adult woman. I plan to remain that way in life, and in death.” – Stella Young

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    Great article! I can’t wait to dig into the links. I want to nominate Judy Brewer, who leads the Web Accessibility Initiative of W3C and is a fierce advocate for making the web accessible to PwD. And airlines and trains and all transportation that hassles people with wheelchairs. Interview her. She has great stories.

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    I love reading about these women but….you missed Cindy Jones, former publisher of Mainstream Magazine and long time disability activist. She has been a role model for many people over the years.
    I also think there needs to be something about people with disabilities who are just living the life they want. While the trailblazers and the big picture folks are one part of the equation, the real equality is just living as you want. Look at Andrew Berk, Cristina Rubke, Ben Chater. I could go on and on. This generation has taken a big step toward actualizing the promises of the law.

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