American History of the Black Disabled in Sports

By Gary Norris Gray BASN Staff Reporter
Updated: February 23, 2011

This article appeared back in 2011. We thought it was worthy of repeat performance

CALIFORNIA–Inland African countries like Northern Benin, Niger, Western Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Western Chad, treated their disabled children like kings and queens. It was a sign from the Gods that these individuals were special and that they should be given respect.

African communities thought the heavens, the Gods, blessed them with this special child that looked different.

Disabled Children on the African coast in the counties likeSenegal, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guiana did not far so well and chances of survival were not good if you were born disabled on the African Coast.

The disabled child was taken to the ocean and thrown into the sea to drown. Some remote places in Asia, Latin America, andAfrica still practice this prehistoric archaic act. We maybe in 2011 but some still fear the disabled, the unknown.

Black and white slave traders would capture parents of disabled children, leaving the children to die. These helpless children could not help themselves. In Africa just like America, the disabled child helped the family around the house, farm, and rising siblings. He/she was still part of the family.

Some disabled children could not perform heavy house chores because of their lack of or limited mobility. The Disabled child would then instill knowable and strength to his/her siblings

There is a poignant moment in the movie “Ray” — the story of blind singer and entertainer, Ray Charles. Every disabled child experiences a moment like this. They either rise above the challenge or fall in despair.

In this scene little Ray is on the floor. Lying there screaming help to his mother. Ray’s mother hears him and does not respond. She looks at him with tears streaming down her face.

She knows that if Ray is going to survive in this harsh world he will have to pick himself up off of the floor and begin his fight for independence.

He continues to whine for a few seconds, but then suddenly it clicks. His mind moves into overdrive, the drive for human survival. He starts to pay attention to his surroundings hearing things he had never heard before.

He notices everything around him, the whistle of the tea kettle, the fly buzzing by his ears; the cows mooing, the cars passing his house and even the scent of his mother.

Ray gets up off the floor and states, “Mom I know your there so why not help me??” This defining moment happens to most disabled children and a new world begins. It is the point of liberation, the point of independence.

Olympic Champion Wilma Rudolph contracted polio as a child and had a very difficult childhood. One leg was shorter then the other and twisted so Wilma wore a heavy leg brace.

Many thought she would not survive her teenage years because she was always ill. Doctors told her that she would never walk normal again, but Rudolph defied the odds. Rudolph was a fighter.

Her mother told her you have to keep up with your brothers and sisters and you have to beat your classmates because you are different. Wilma did not know what to do because it took her longer to get to and from school each day.

Right then was her disabled moment. She decided that she would run to school everyday and beat her siblings and classmates to school. This personal decision made her the best female runner in the world, beating world class runners in the 1956 and 1960 Summer Olympic Games.

Willie O’Ree the first black hockey player in the National Hockey League had a similar moment in his career. Playing in a sport that did not have another Black player he had to be a strong individual. This continued when he was told he would never see out of the eye that was struck by a flying puck. His decision to play or not to play was the turning point in his life, his disabled moment. Mr. O’Ree went back to the Boston Bruins never telling a soul about his disability. There is a league rule that if a player lost vision in one eye he could no longer play. O’Ree is now the current coordinator of the NHL Diversity Program. The National Hockey League currently dresses 27 Black players, this would have never happened without the courage and strength of Willie O’Ree.


The mothers of disabled children had to protect and hide their child from the master. If the master saw a disabled child it was taken immediately and killed.

This child was considered a liability an economic burden and not an asset to the master because that child was eating food and not producing anything for the master’s economic profit.

This continued at the turn of the 20th century or the modern era. Black disabled children lived in the basement or attic unseen by family or friends. The stigma of having a disabled child was too great. The first group to break out of this endless cycle was the courageous disabled men and women of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. The first group of visual disabled individuals to, socially, and politically and economically raise their voices, in unison, demanding their equal rights.

Harriett Tubman, one of the greatest heroines of our time was a strong disabled Black woman. She wanted to free other disabled slaves but the mothers would never tell her where they were. This broke her heart.

As mentioned earlier, Olympic sprinter Wilma Rudolph won three gold medals in the 1960 Summer Games in Rome and Willie O’Ree is currently helping African American Children to understand the game of hockey. This would have made freedom fighter Harriett Tubman a very proud woman.


The first experiments with the gas chambers were on disabled German citizens. These monsters tested “how to” exterminate humans efficiently. These individuals died a very painful lingering death.

Disabled German citizens had to wear bright yellow arm bands all the time, making it much easier for the police to round them up.

The term “deaf and dumb” came from the Nazi regime. It has stood the test of time and American society still uses this horrible phrase. Deaf people are not dumb.

A new form of slave labor transformed disabled Eastern European females. They were given ten needles to sew new German military uniforms. If the workers broke all ten needles they were sent to the gas chambers.

This showed the world the quality of life or lack of quality for the disabled in the German Empire.

Today it has vastly improved.

Basketball star Mike “Stinger” Glenn, Southern Illinois University, and Saluki great and all American guard grew up with two parents who are deaf. He learned sign languages at a young age; he understood the difficulties his parents experienced.

Glenn promised his parents that he would help deaf children whenever he could. The former (NBA) National Basketball Association player opened a camp for deaf children. He taught many at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale the art of communication in (ASL) American Sign Languages.

During his playing career, Glenn requested the NBA to broadcast their games with Closed Captioning. Today, most sports broadcast are closed captioned for the hearing impaired thanks to Glenn’s effort.

Now deaf basketball fans can enjoy the game like everyone else.

Baseball player John Curtis Pride was drafted by my beloved New York Mets; and also played for the Montreal Expos, Detroit Tigers, Boston Red Sox, and finally the Atlanta Braves during his career.

First baseman William Ellsworth “Dummy” Hoy, changed the game of baseball through the signs you see now in baseball were created by Hoy. The umpires strike call, the out and safe call, the fair and foul signs, and the third and first base coach’s signs to the batters were created at this time.

These are the positive events that have occurred because of this disability.

However, the American film and movie industry still does not understand. The appalling movie called “Tropic Thunder”, with Ben Stiller and Robert Downey Jr.

The movie was a comedy, but most disabled Americans and the disabled community at large did not think it was funny. During the movie’s first weekend it was the highest rated movie at that time.

Mentally challenged Americans also have to fight the American movie industry with the use of the word retarded. The movie included scenes about mentally disabled citizens calling them the R- word many times. For those who don’t know the R-word it’s retarded. This name has been politically and socially unacceptable for years. The Movie comedy released used this word over 50 times. The producers, directors, and writers of this movie were not sensitive to the Mentally Disabled Americans

The Special Olympic Games lost two of their heroes with the passing of founder, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and her husband Sergeant Shriver.

In 1960, the Kennedy’s and Shriver’s wanted American mentally challenged children to compete and meet new people. When it started 50 years ago only half of the stadium in Boston was full and they were just friends and relatives of the children competing.

Today over 180 countries participate in these games and the stadiums are full of sports fans. The Kennedy-Shriver families are the second positive force for the disabled community in the field of sports.


President Franklin D Roosevelt could have done so much for the American disabled community because he was the first disabled President, yet he chose to hide his disability.

The country was at war and he wanted the world to see a strong American leader. Also the stigma of disability was strong and the portrayal of weakness was prominent. Disabled folk were still not accepted in society and President Roosevelt knew this.

Presently in the state of New York there is a Disabled African American Governor, Mr. David Peterson. Governor Peterson is legally blind and it is very difficult to hide his disability. Peterson took over a state that was in financial difficulty.

Mr. Peterson memorizes his speeches which is very impressive because I can’t remember two lines of my Saturday afternoon THE GRAY LEOPARD COVE radio show!

Jim Abbott, the one-armed pitcher for the New York Yankees and California Angels and golfer Casey Martin wanted to play the game they loved. Both had physical disabilities that did not stop them. One visible, the other invisible.

Martin had to file a case with the United States Supreme Court to allow him to play on the Professional Golf Association Tour (PGA) in a golf cart because he could not stand or walk long distances.

Kicker Tom Dempsey of the New Orleans Saints broke the record for the longest field goal in NFL history – 63 yards – beating the Detroit Lions 19-17 in 1970. The record has been equaled in 1998 by Denver Bronco Jason Elam.

Dempsey was born without toes on his right foot. He created a modified shoe so he could play. After the record braking field goal other teams complained that Dempsey had an unfair advantage and the NFL created “The Dempsey Rule”, in 1977.

The rule states that any shoe worn by a player with an artificial limb on his kicking leg must have a kicking surface that conforms to that of a normal kicking shoe.

Again the disabled must conform to the able bodied world of rules when the rules are already stacked against the disabled player. The same can be said about African American players they have to be twice as good as their white counter parts to even play the game they love.


The Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon syndrome is still with us. Disabled kids are cute, get our attention, and need assistance.

Well ladies and gentlemen disabled children do grow up. Have you ever see an older child or adult; or a child of color on this Labor Day broadcast?

Just like the Native American Indian-First Nations professional team mascots, the disabled are in a time capsule and remain in that time frame, forever. The Cleveland Indians and the Washington Football Club want to stay in the 1920-1940’s with their logo and name.

Baseball All-Star Luis Tiant stated many times that as a Latino man he disliked putting on the Cleveland Indian Uniform because of the disgraceful logo on the sleeve and hat.

Tiant loved playing baseball and loved playing for the Indians, but he recognized the disrespect the organization had for Native American Indian-First Nations fans with their logo.

If more Baseball players like Tiant spoke out against Cleveland‘s Chief Wahoo, the silly grinning mascot, on the sleeve of the jersey and the cap. The logo would surly be part of American history.


The power of a disabled elected official is clearly marked by the case of Alabama Governor George C. Wallace. The state had a few curb cuts and a few accessible buildings before the 1972 assassination attempt on his life in a Maryland shopping center that left him paralyzed. The state of Alabama at that time ranked 46 in disabled access in the United States.

Governor Wallace stated he wanted his state to become wheelchair accessible and it happened in the last two years of his term. “MAKE IT SO”, as Jean-Luc Picard captain of the Starship USS Enterprise would say.

Governor Wallace proved that it can be done when an individual in power makes such decisions. Most Disabled African Americans do not have that kind of political, social, or economic power.


The Black disabled child was left out when it was time for education. Especially if the parents of that child did not know the various educational programs available for their child.

The disabled child would sit at home and watch TV. Wasting away his/her chance to improve. Parents and disabled young adults should contact the Social Security office in your local town to get started.

There are (OJT’s) On The Job Training programs from the (DVR) Department of Vocational Rehabilitation There are tutors and assistance for the disabled student in high schools and colleges.


When a child reaches the age of 18 the United Statesgovernment issues a Federal assistance check for the rest of their lives. Most African American children and their parents do not know this because they are not in the disabled networking system.


In 2000 this situation has gotten better. If the disabled child is black, male, big, and loud he/she gets categorized as DD or AD Developmental Disabled or Attention Deficit. Once this child receives this label it stays with him/her for life.

Most Children with Cerebral Palsy were labeled DD 80 % of the time. This is tragic and is very difficult to remove. Most of these children are not DD, but the teachers, doctors, and counselors cannot handle the cultural and physical issues.


Disabled African Americans were excluded from the disabled movement years ago when five white disabled males inBerkeley, California created The Center for Independent Living.

The Center gave young disabled adults their first chance at a job, the first chance to politically, socially, and economically join forces. However, this did not include African American Disabled. This was an error of omission not commission, but it should not occur.

It was great to have a disabled movement in American but just like the beginnings of the women’s movement it lacked the participation of people of color.

Again it has improved but the cultural and economic issues are being ignored by the movement similar to the 1970’s women’s movement. That movement did not understand that African American females had been liberated 60 years earlier. Black Disabled youth know what time it is and make their own way not waiting for the disabled movement to help them.

— Disabled African Americans are living on the outskirts of two worlds with neither world accepting them for who they are. My disabled brother, author, writer and Krip Hop artist Leroy Moore Jr. from Buffalo New York also has Cerebral Palsy.

He coined this phrase “Living on the Outskirts”. This term defines African American disabled live on the outskirts of the black and white communities.

The White community does not accept the Black disabled because they are African American, The Black community does not accept them because they are disabled.

So the Black Disabled American gets bounced like a ping pong ball from one group to another and never really feels at home in either culture. The Black Disabled love southern fried cooking, dancing, sports, music and a love life, just like everybody else.

Oscar Pistoris and Natalie Du Toit from South Africa both competed in the Beijing Summer Games, then two weeks later competed in the Beijing Paralympics Games.

Pistoris rose above the controversy of his “Cheetah” carbon fiber legs. It was later known that able-bodied runners had the advantage at the starting blocks because Pistoris could not push off the blocks with his Cheetahs like able-bodied runners use the heels of their feet. It was shown to have almost a full second advantage. Will the Olympic Games equalize the starting blocks for disabled athletes when they compete against non-disabled athletes, NO.?

These athletes are on the outskirts of two worlds, disabled and non-disabled world with neither one accepting them either. These two individuals are so good that they beat disabled athletes with relative ease, but they struggle against able-bodied athletes because the rules restrict their abilities.


This was a great victory for disabled Americans — the passing of the (ADA) Americans with Disabilities Act — but something was missing. Disabled Americans of color and disabled females were absent at the signing table.

The disabled finally got their civil rights but Disabled African Americans and disabled females were asking do we have the same rights because they were not representative.

President Bush’s set along side of the disabled and made many in the community happy. This was their first visual political act by Washington D.C. But there was still NO LOVE for the Asian, Latino, or Black Disabled communities.


The issue of non-disabled people making legal and medical decisions for the disabled and for the Disabled African American has additional cultural bias issues.

It is happening all over again in Washington D.C. with the current and pending 2011 Congressional legislation on Medical and Medical. The health of Black Disabled Americans will be in danger if the cuts are implemented.

Many years ago Terry Schiavo’s seven-year right to life battle between her husband and parents to extend Terri’s life or let her die without medical assistance. Ms Schiavo passed away after a long life in the hospital in 2005.

Little Ashley’s right to have children and grow into a woman was prevented by her parents. They made the decision to have doctors perform a hysterectomy and breast surgery to limit her growth.

They also gave her at 10 years old hormones to limit her physical growth. Ashley is at her full height and weight. The parents did this for their convenience. Not asking Ashley what she wanted.

This is repeated in the Disabled African American community. Drugs are administered to the disabled child to “calm him/her down” or to relax his/her muscles. Valium is a favorite drug given to young people with Cerebral Palsy

This drug alters the disabled person personality forever yet not much protest.

So you think the N-word is bad? Can you imagine growing up with Cerebral Palsy? A disability that affects all of the muscular motor skills of the body?

Now think about this, other disabled children calling you the N-word. Cerebral Palsy was considered on the lowest rung of the disabled community hierarchy.

Children with CP talked funny, drooled, and were spastic and jumped at sudden loud noises. All of these issues were frowned upon by the greater disabled community.

For a white disabled child, it may or may not matter, but for a disabled African American Child this was a triple play, Black, male, and disabled. The 1960-70 era America did not like Black disabled folk because they were a new political threat.

People who you thought were your allies and would support you because you had a common bond-disability were now calling you the N-word. So the disabled child with Cerebral Palsy had to have a thick skin.

A white disabled child grew up with racist parents grew up more intense with the same attitude because they stayed at home, these kids did not socialize with other kids of a different cultural background to dispel their parent’s myths, and cultural believes so they were intense with their feelings of race, sex, and social status.

The same event occurred with Black disabled children if his/her parents were prejudice. They mimicked their parent’s views politically, socially, and economically.


Christopher Reeve’s becoming the spokesmen for the disabled community when he was only disabled for two years was profound. He did not know many of the issues the confronted the disabled community. Why?

Because he never lived, talked, or worked with other Disabled Americans.

Many issues did not get addressed because of his star power. Yes, he did wonderful things for stem cell research but many other important issues were left unacknowledged.

While disabled singers like the late Curtis Mayfield andPhiladelphia star Teddy Pendergrass, both quadriplegics, addressed inner city issues and health care issues for the African American with disabilities, something the White Disabled leadership still fails to address. They also address the issue of Black fathers leaving the family after finding out their child was disabled. Leaving leadership of the family to Black women, AGAIN.

Unfortunately, the issues of the handicapped aren’t sexy enough for the American media or the White Disabled leadership.

Dodger Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella was the first disabled coach in Major league history. Every spring, Campanella would travel with the Dodgers to their spring training camp in Florida.

He would help the young catchers on the art of defense behind the plate. Whenever a team member had a problem they would visit Campanella. He used his disability to help others with words of wisdom and words of experience.

Anyone having the grace to live into your eighties, nineties, or a century most likely a certain part of your body will fail. That is just human nature and then the body will force you to join the disabled community, whither you want to or not.


Please ask if the disabled person wants to be helped, it is a common courtesy to ask before assisting. Don’t be offended if he/she says no, it’s just part of being independent.

Remember we teach all of our children to be independent, the same can be said for disabled youth.

Post Script: Check out these other movies about Disabled African Americans

The Caveman’s Valentine with Samuel L. Jackson The Bone Collector with Denzel Washington Article 99 with Ray Liotta, Kiefer Sutherland and Forest Whitaker The Waterdance with Wesley Snipes, Eric Stoltz and Helen Hunt Ray with Jamie Foxx. Regina King, and Kerry Washington It’s Good to Be Alive: The Roy Campanella Story with Paul Winfield A Patch of Blue with Sidney Poiter Men of Honor with Cuba Gooding Jr.

Radio with CubaGooding Jr.

Genghis Blues with Paul Pena Porgy and Bess with Sidney Poiter, Dorothy Dandridge, and Sammy Davis Jr.

NOTE: Want to know more about the Black Disabled community? Log on to, THE GRAYLINE at, or the Gray Leopard Cove