Let’s be clear: Disability activists are not simply inspiring because we are disabled. Our true inspiration lies in our steadfast determination to challenge societal barriers, dismantle ableism, and showcase the power of our community.
As a proud disabled activist, I am constantly encouraged by those within my community who are trailblazers in the fight for disability rights. They serve as role models, demonstrating the power of advocacy, resilience, and determination.
Learning from disability activists — during Disability Pride Month and all year long — is an opportunity to broaden our perspectives and deepen our understanding of the challenges faced by disabled individuals.
I’ve compiled a list of incredible disability activists fighting for increased visibility, policy changes, accessibility improvements, and social acceptance. These are activists that each of us can learn from and support — offering a pathway for us to become better allies and advocates.
While there are certainly more disability activists doing meaningful work than I’ve been able to include in this piece, this list serves as a starting point to highlight a diverse range of voices and perspectives within the disability community.
The Best Disability Activists To Learn From
Judy Heumann quite literally paved the way for disability justice in the United States.
The New York native contracted polio at 18 months and began using a wheelchair in elementary school. Judy later sued the New York Board of Education after they denied her a teaching license because she needed assistance evacuating due to her disability.
In 1973, Section 504 was passed, which was the first piece of federal legislation protecting disabled Americans.
Because of the its ambiguous language, however, further regulations needed to pass in order to clarify who would be protected under the law. Four years passed, and these regulations did not materialize.
In the spring of 1977, Heumann helped lead a 26-day sit-in.
This protest was monumental and got the needed regulations passed. Without this bill, we wouldn’t have the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Heumann is featured in the 2020 Oscar-nominated film “Crip Camp,” which documents the disability justice movement of the ’70s.
During her lifetime, Heumann had several novels published about her life. On March 4, 2023, she passed away at the age of 75.
Andrea Dalzell is the first registered nurse in a wheelchair in New York state. Diagnosed with transverse myelitis at five years old, she has since been committed to changing the narrative around disability.
When asked if her disability made it hard for her to fight against COVID-19, she told Yahoo, “The main point is I am doing the job, doing the job well, and not finding the issues that were supposed to make this job impossible for a wheelchair user.”
Dalzell, who starred in an Apple Watch commercial in 2020, was awarded the Craig H. Neilsen Visionary Prize live on Good Morning America that same year. When asked what she would do with this unrestricted $1 million prize, Dalzell said her dream is to create a nonprofit for future disabled healthcare professionals.
Currently, she is a school nurse at the Quad Manhattan. When speaking of Dalzell, the school’s founder, Kim Busi, told Good Morning America, “She’s not only extraordinarily professional and smart and good at what she does, but also very approachable, and the kids absolutely love her.”
Julian Gavino is a disabled trans writer, model, and influencer. Coming out as trans as a teen, their queer identity and disability are wholly intertwined. Gavino has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which affects most of their body.
During the pandemic, they highlighted how dangerous and continuously disabling it had been for their community. On their Instagram, they shared with over 68 thousand followers about their time in the hospital due to complications with his feeding tube. As a result of COVID-19 supply chain issues, they could not maintain regular use of this life-saving device.
Gavino’s modeling career has been monumental in ensuring that the fashion industry is inclusive of all body types. Most recently, they appeared in New York Fashion Week sporting adaptive fashion.
In March of 2022, Gavino was announced as one of NYC Pride’s spokespeople. That year’s theme, “Unapologetically Us,” highlighted LGBTQ+ individuals of all body types.
The Philadelphia native is an adept communications professional and content creator and incredibly influential in creating conversations around disability that many shy away from.
Through her blogging, science fiction, and memoir writing, Barbarin fearlessly addresses the experiences and challenges faced by disabled folks — dismantling barriers and misconceptions while amplifying their voices.
Alice Wong is a self-proclaimed “disabled oracle” who is a titan in the disability community. She was born with spinal muscular atrophy and uses the power of storytelling to shed light on disabilities through her online community, Disability Visibility Project.
Under the Obama administration, she served on the National Council on Disability, advising the President and Congress on programs for disabled people. Alice is a published author whose books portray her own disability journey as well as anthologies from the community as a whole.
Wesley Hamilton, a Kansas City native, became disabled shortly after his 24th birthday when he was shot after a verbal altercation and became paralyzed.
A year prior, Hamilton had just gotten custody of his daughter. After his injury, he began a new health journey and lost 100 pounds, wanting to set a good example for his daughter.
After learning about business at his local community college, he founded his organization, Disabled But Not Really, which aims to help disabled people on their fitness journeys.
The organization’s mission is to build healthy connections between those with disabilities in their bodies, which can often be difficult due to internalized ableism. The organization has a mobile gym that travels to Kansas City’s disabled residents, restoring equal access to gyms.
Hamilton was even featured in season four of Queer Eye. On the show, he was able to meet his shooter. During this meeting, Hamilton thanked him for becoming paralyzed, as it allowed him to be who he is today.
Lee has loved traveling since he was young. He is determined not to let his wheelchair stop him from seeing the world.
Lee chronicles his travels on his Webby Award-winning blog Curb Free with Cory Lee, where he shares his experiences, including hotel recommendations, excursions and travel tips, shared with disabled people in mind.
In 2018 he was named New Mobility Magazine’s Person of the Year. Lee’s travels have taken him to all seven continents.
Jillian Mercado, a Dominican model and actress, has never let her wheels stop her. During her time as a fashion merchandising student at the Fashion Institute of Technology, she occasionally modeled for other students. In 2014, she appeared in the groundbreaking Diesel denim campaign — which landed her a contract with IMG models.
In 2019, Mercado was cast to play Maribel on the L Word: Generation Q.
In a groundbreaking achievement, Mercado signed with CAA, one of the premier talent agencies, marking a significant milestone for disability representation.
Through this historic move, Mercado is pushing boundaries and challenging the status quo, paving the way for greater visibility and opportunities for disabled individuals in the entertainment industry.
Kevin Patel has been fighting for the health of our planet for the past 11 years. The California native was diagnosed with a heart arrhythmia at 12 years old due to Los Angeles’ poor air quality.
Patel is the founder and executive director of OneUpAction, an intersectional youth-led organization aiming to provide those in marginalized communities with the resources to tackle the climate crisis.
He was also was recently appointed a commissioner of the LA County Youth Climate Commission, an initiative he helped spearhead.
Lauren “Lolo” Spencer
Spencer began her YouTube channel shortly after graduating college in 2012. Her videos helped her earn her first modeling gig with Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive.
Spencer is breaking barriers by showing others that disabled bodies are desirable. Recently she launched the lifestyle brand Live Solo, which is an online resource that inspires independence and creates a more positive narrative around disability.
Lucy Trieshman is a disabled lawyer currently working for the ACLU. She co-founded The Breaking Point Project, which highlights the stories of disabled incarcerated folks through the power of storytelling and art.
During her time as a law student at NYU, she fought for equal accommodations for disabled students during the pandemic. Trieshman is a fierce advocate for her disabled peers and is showing us that we can be anything and everything.
Andrea LaVant is a writer and cultural authority on disability. As a result of her experience growing up, she knew she wanted to go into communications. Her experience includes working for Girl Scouts Nation’s Capital, where she increased access to membership for girls with all abilities.
She is the founder and executive director of Levant Consulting, a firm that employs a disability-focused strategy to help brands be more inclusive and ensure that disability is not an afterthought.
Most notably, she was the impact producer for a Crip Camp whose work helped the movie garner an Academy Award nomination.
Since then, she has maintained a relationship with the Academy, offering her expertise in creating an inclusive award ceremony. She has helped ensure that ramps, ASL signage, and service animals are now offered and implemented at the awards.