American History of the Black Disabled in Sports and Life.

Updated: March 17, 2014
Gary Norris Gray BASN Staff Reporter
This article appeared back in 2011. We thought it was worthy of a repeat performance with the Paralympics in Sochi in progress
The African American Disabled community has come a long way be we (Disabled) have a long way to go in 2014. The Black Disabled community is still on the outside looking in.
Let’s take a look at history.
imagesCV4XSDV0Inland African countries like Northern Benin, Niger, Western Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Western Chad, treated their disabled children like kings and queens, which all children should be treated. 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, had blessed them with this special child that had special needs.
Disabled Children on the African coast in the counties of Senegal, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guiana did not fare so well and chances of survival were not great on either African Coast.
The disabled child was taken to the ocean and thrown into the sea to drown. Some remote places in Asia, and Latin America, and central Africa still practice this prehistoric archaic act.
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 the 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.rau
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 than the other and twisted so Wilma wore a heavy leg brace.
wilmaMany 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. Rudolph was a runner.
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 every day 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 Black players he knew 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 36 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 their master’s. 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.
harriet tubman
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, 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. Tubman was the first Black Disabled Liberator.
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, making it 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.
dJust ask deaf 2014 Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawk running back Derrick Colman
The German regime created 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. The European World accepts their disabled residents while America still struggles with the social issue.
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.gleen
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 batter were created at this time for Hoy. These signs are still here today.
However, the American film and movie industry still does not understand. The appalling movie called “Tropic Thunder”, in 2008 with Ben Stiller and Robert Downey Jr.
The movie was a comedy, but the disabled community at large did not think it was funny. During the movie’s first weekend it was the highest rated movie.
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. No, it is not the Washington Football Club.
ssFor those who don’t know the R-word it’s retarded. This name has been politically and socially unacceptable. The movie comedy used this word over 50 times. The producers, directors, and writers were not sensitive to the Mentally Disabled American
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 55 years ago only half of the stadium in Boston was full and they were just friends and relatives of the children competing.
Today over 210 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.
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.yanki
Martin won his case but lost the war with his body. He is retired and working with young golfers.
Field goal 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.
The disabled must conform to the able-bodied world of rules when the non disabled rules are already stacked against them. 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.
images6ERV4008Have 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 Black 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/First Nations fans with their logo.
If more Baseball players like Tiant spoke out against Cleveland‘s Chief Wahoo, the silly grinning mascot. The logo would surely be part of American history.
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.
Gary Norris Gray – Writer, Author, Historian. Gibbs Magazine-Oakland, California and New England Informer- Boston Mass. THE GRAYLINE:- The Analects of A Black Disabled Man, The Gray Leopard Cove on Disabled Community Activist. Email at
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  1. Eric Graham

    March 17, 2014 at 1:19 am

    Great article!!! I learned a lot….

  2. Michael Ingram

    March 18, 2014 at 5:16 pm

    great piece, G!

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