WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 06: Disability rights activists and caregiving advocates hold a vigil in front of the US Capitol to urge Congress to include full federal funding for home and community based care services in President Biden’s Build Back Better budget package on October 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Larry French/Getty Images for The Arc of the United States)

Happy Black History Month! This is the 9th blog of a series of blogs called “Black History Month Heroes You Should Know”. Each blog focuses on the life and career of a Black American whose life has shaped American history.

The focus of today’s blog is Johnnie Lacy, a social justice leader who helped spearhead the independent living movement. She spent her life in activism highlighting the intersectionality between race, gender, and ability.

Louisiana to California

According to the Center for Learner Equity, Johnnie Lacy grew up in the deep South. Born in Louisiana in 1937, Lacy attended several segregated elementary schools. At age 10, her family moved to McCloud, California where she would attend an integrated school and face informal segregation. As quoted by Ramp Your Voice, Lacy said that she didn’t learn this until later but “…during the time when blacks were being recruited from the South, white managers were also being recruited from the South…So basically, segregation was transplanted from Louisiana and Texas with the workers and the managers who came to McCloud.”

Facing Ableist Discrimination

At the age of 19, Lacy contracted polio from her nursing job at San Francisco General Hospital. Ramp Your Voice says she first experienced severe headaches and blurred vision. This led to the need for an iron lung, a chest respirator, and 2-3 years of rehab. This ultimately left her paralyzed and wheelchair-bound. In 1958, Lacy wanted to pursue higher education at San Francisco State University. But, when she tried, she faced blatant discrimination because of her disability. She ended up being accepted to the program, but not allowed to officially join the school or attend graduation (Center for Learner Equity).

Independent Living Movement

She spent her life advocating for people with disabilities to be able to live independently. In 1981, she helped found the Berkeley Center for Independent Living (Center for Learner Equity). She then spent a decade working for a non-profit called Community Resources for Independent Living (CRIL). The organization provides advocacy and mentoring resources for folks with disabilities. Lacy also served on the California Attorney General’s Commission on Disability and the Mayor of San Francisco’s Disability Council. She passed away in 2010.

Learn more about Johnnie Lacy at these sources: Center for Learner Equity, Ramp Your Voice

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