By Alonna Carter-Donaldson, Project Scholar
When thinking about Western Pennsylvania’s storied past, what comes to mind? Andrew Carnegie and the steel mills? Fort Pitt as Revolutionary War stronghold? Or… maybe the Heinz empire that revolutionized the way that Americans enjoyed their condiments.
Something is missing.
While these stories are important parts of the Western Pennsylvania story, people of color and those who lived with a disability and thrived beyond the odds seem to be left out. These unsung heroes, through their activism, innovation, and resolve shaped the landscape for disability rights, resources, and visibility throughout the area.
Five of these pioneers are the inaugural class of the Western Pennsylvania Disability History and Action Consortium’s Intersection of Race and Disability Project, funded by the FISA Foundation. The project documents and shares the history of Western Pennsylvanians with disabilities who are people of color in order to expand the historical record and advance equity in disability rights. In addition, the project contributes to systemic change by connecting this history to the contemporary struggle for racial equality, civil rights, social justice, and equitable policy and practices.
The members of the inaugural class are:
- Florence Reed, founder, Women Working with Disabilities
- Milton Henderson, advocate, Three Rivers Center for Independent Living and City of Pittsburgh-Allegheny County Task Force on Disabilities
- Marilyn McKinney, program officer, Program for Students with Exceptionalities, Pittsburgh Public Schools
- Henry Bell, first student, Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf
- Rika’s Hearts, a Walk/Run fundraiser founded by Ron and Cecily Moore, parents of Maurika Moore, who has epilepsy. Rika’s Hearts raises money for medical treatment and gives back to the community of Washington, Pennsylvania
Through interviews with the subjects, family, friends, and contemporary advocates, the project has captured these stories and is sharing them with the community, with a special focus how social justice groups can better partner with people of color in disability community, who for so long have been left out of the conversation.
Florence Reed, founder of Working Women with Disabilities, was born in the Homewood neighborhood in Pittsburgh in 1944. Florence attended Westinghouse High School and the District of Columbia Miners School (later known as the University of District Columbia), graduating with a degree in Speech Therapy. She later enrolled in the University of Pittsburgh where she received her master’s degree in Counseling Education. Reed taught in Pittsburgh Public Schools for seven years and is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.
Reed acquired a physical disability as an adult.
“This started when I was 26,” she recalled. Reed was living and working in Arizona at the time when health issues prompted her to seek medical attention. After visiting various hospitals, including the Mayo Clinic, she was still without a clear diagnosis of what was happening to her body until she moved back to Pittsburgh. Reed describes her condition as the cerebellum dropping into the spine. Due to her disability, Reed uses a wheelchair to get around.
She remembers the feeling of not really knowing what to do once she became disabled. She credits her sorority sisters with getting out of the house during this period: “…my sorority sisters when I came back home, would not let me stay home. They would not let me become an invalid and ashamed of my disability. They would take me out.”
Eventually Reed, who was already acquainted with many people in the disability community through her previous work in speech therapy and counseling, decided to start collaborating with her colleagues. However, she noticed that the presence of minorities was rare. “I worked on the Pennsylvania Developmental Disabilities Council for twenty-five years, which helped me learn what had to be done and how disability had to be brought up,” she said. “You needed so many people, you needed a lot of people to work with that, and you needed a lot of minorities because there were not a lot of minorities working for other minorities and so you just had to be that one in there to help.”
As someone who was new to the experience of having a disability, Reed noticed that she was now dealing with not only one, but three parts of her identity that made her subject to discriminatory practices: being Black, a woman, and disabled. She explained: “A friend of mine, Randi Rubin, and I started getting together and just talking. And so, we were talking about all the problems that women have with disabilities, trying to get placed in the workforce, because you know I worked – I have two degrees and I saw people being hired before I did, because I was a woman with a disability.”
Reed knew then she had to do something, so she and Rubin set up meetings in the 1990s where women with disabilities could come to talk about the issues and discrimination they faced in the workforce. Reed and Rubin would officially found Working Women with Disabilities in 2000. The mission of the organization is to provide employment support and education for all women with disabilities. The organization sponsored the Linda A. Dickerson Awards Dinner in 2004, named after the disability advocate and Carnegie Mellon University trustee who would pass away in 2020, and did fundraisers to help women with disabilities with rent, food, and resources. Reed has also served for many years as a board member of Community Living and Support Services, better known as CLASS
When it comes to social justice interaction with the disability community, Reed believes that greater strides need to be taken to include those in the community. “There are a lot of people with disabilities that are in social justice systems, and they don’t have what they need because there is no one to help them get it,” she said. “When I first began to work with people with disabilities, I learned that people with disabilities…didn’t understand things that were out there that they could access to help them. And after you start telling them what they can do to get it and help them to get it, you don’t give it to them. You help them to know how to get it. And that’s what’s going to have to be done; you’ll have to help people get it, so they’ll have it for the rest of their life.”
Through perseverance and addressing a void needing to be filled for women in the disability community, Florence Reed has affected the lives of many people across Western Pennsylvania with her work. Her advocacy and persistence have set the stage for a new generation of advocates who are navigating intersectional challenges. Reed gave the following advice to those who just beginning their advocacy journey: “Know who you are, what you want, and what has to be done, and how you going to go out. And the best thing I can tell them is there’s a saying, Walk Softly and Carry a Big Stick. You know you can’t force people to do something right…but if you talk softly and get them to eventually think the way you think, you can get things done. Walk softly and carry a big stick.”