An African American blog of politics, culture, and social activism.
My uncle, Edward Nelson, Jr., whom we called June, was disabled. Throughout my childhood I never thought about him having a disability of any kind. To me he was physically strong, exceedingly intelligent, and an avid reader of newspapers and magazines, Times-Picayune, the National Enquirer, and the Jet along with westerns and detective novels. In addition, he was skilled. He was a trained television repairman for those who remember when televisions were actually repaired and not discarded. So it always pained me when my friends and folks in my New Orleans neighborhood referred to my uncle as “Cripple June.” You see, when he was twenty, just before he was to return to the army, he was struck by polio, which almost killed him. My grandmother told me how he spent months in an iron lung and how miraculously he recovered, though having lost the use of his legs. So, when I was born my uncle wore leg braces and used crutches. To me his defining characteristic were not his crutches or his braces, although they were definitely how many people physically described him. In my eyes what defined my uncle were his strengths; his ability to keep living after a devastating lost; his ability to faithfully love his children; and me his nephew. While in my kid’s eye I looked up to my uncle and saw other qualities about him other than his body, the reality was polio left him physically disabled.
In my childhood community we had more than our share of people who were physically disabled. It was not uncommon for us to see people who were blind, wheel chaired bound amputees, persons with one arm, or people born with physical abnormalities of one kind or another. These people, just like my Uncle June, had to show remarkable strength in a world that did not help to ameliorate their disabilities. There were few ramps and even fewer elevators. The world before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed by the Congress and signed into law by the President in 1990 was very difficult for people like my uncle. Sadly for my family my uncle died in 1989 the year before this much needed law was enacted.
I have thought about my Uncle June a lot as the country recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of the passage of the ADA and remembered the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. In my New Orleans childhood our family lived through two hurricanes. In 1965, Hurricane Betsey devastated New Orleans. Here were we, my mother, grandmother, my uncle, and me, a nine-year-old kid, all in the house together wondering if would need to evacuate to a designated shelter. Like so many families in New Orleans our lives were pedestrian. We used public transportation and taxicabs routinely to shop or as we say in NOLA “make groceries.” Mercifully, for us, but not those who lived in the lower 9th ward, we survived the winds of Betsey in our house. Four years later, in 1969, Hurricane Camille tore through the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, bounced out and hit land on Texas’ Gulf Coast and reeked havoc in Houston and Galveston. Fortunately for my individual family we were spared again and my uncle was spared to see me grow up, graduate from college, get married, and start a family. We were simply lucky. There were no provisions for people with disabilities in case of an emergency back then.
Fast forward to 2005. I cried a great deal when Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of my birth. I cried thinking about all the lost, which my family members incurred. I cried thinking what might have happened to my beloved uncle had he been alive and what might have been done to assist him. So many victims of Katrina both in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi were disabled. And much of Black NOLA was and is still pedestrian. Families of quite modest means or simply poor all throughout the city were trying to take care of a love one with a disability when Katrina landed. One of the great tragedies of that hurricane was too many of the victims when the levees broke were people with disabilities who died trapped in their houses.
When I began thinking about the passage of the ADA I looked for articles about African Americans. To my amazement there weren’t many at all. It was though folk who are disabled in black and brown communities do not exist or have not been written about, but people with disabilities live all around us. It need not take another Katrina for us to acknowledge their existence and work alongside them to make a better place for all of us to live.