Sunday, March 21, 1999

Disabilities didn't slow pioneers

Blackwell, Low, Tubman left lasting legacies

Enquirer contributor

        March is Women's History Month, and many women who have shaped our history have been women with disabilities.

        Just last week, Kelly Dillery, a 31-year-old Sandusky, Ohio, mom made headlines when she was found not guilty of the child endangerment on a charge placed against her for riding her wheelchair in the streets with her 4-year-old daughter in her lap. Often without fanfare, women with disabilities are now playing significant roles in law, science, and the arts.

        But the faces of women with disabilities have always been in our history. The first woman to complete medical school, a female conductor for the underground railroad, and the founder of Girl Scouts of America were all women with disabilities.

        Soon after her family moved to Cincinnati, Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) landed her first job, teaching, in Henderson, Ky. Her disapproval of slavery and her fascination with medical texts, however, soon led her to another career.

        Accepted by the Geneva Medical School of Western New York, she attracted considerable attention in America and abroad when she graduated with her M.D. in 1849. Shortly afterward, while working and studying at an obstetrics facility in Paris, she contracted a purulent ophthalmia, which resulted in the loss of one eye. She went on to practice medicine in England and the United States and eventually to open her own clinic which later became the New York Infirmary and College for Women.

        Dr. Blackwell continued to fight for equal entrance of young women to medical schools throughout her lifetime. She was known for her writings, particularly in the area of public health, and was praised by such women as Florence Nightingale, Lady Byron, and others.

        While Elizabeth Blackwell was becoming our first woman doctor, Harriet Tubman (1820-1913) was fast becoming the heroine of the underground railroad. An escaped slave herself, Miss Tubman was known as the Moses of her people, leading men, women and children out of bondage. Her first act of bravery in aiding a runaway slave led to her disability. Rather than helping an overseer catch a young man who was fleeing, Miss Tubman, at age 13, stood in a doorway to allow the young man to duck past her and escape. An iron weight flung at the fleeing slave hit Miss Tubman in the head, an injury which almost killed her.

        For the rest of her life, Miss Tubman was haunted by unpredictable fainting spells, a condition which is now believed to have been epilepsy.

        Despite the severe head injury and her small stature, Miss Tubman became an exceptionally strong young woman — hauling logs and cutting down trees — and it was only when a possible change in owners occurred that she sought her own freedom. She knew that her “sudden sleeping spells” would cost her life on a chain gang, and she fled to save herself.

        Her first return trip south as a “conductor” was for her sister's family. She made several trips a year — leading the rest of her own family and countless strangers to the northern states and Canada.

        During the Civil War, she worked as a scout, spy, nurse and rescuer of slaves. After the war she was active in community affairs and known for her support of poor, disabled and elderly. Her bravery was of legendary proportion and as she put it, she “never lost” a passenger.

        Juliette Gordon Low (1860-1927) became interested in the scout movement through her friendship with the founders of Boy Scouts and Girl Guides in England. She maintained homes in Scotland, England and America, and she formed her first Girl Guide troop in Scotland.

        In 1912, at her home in Savannah, Ga., the first troop of American Girl Guides assembled, and the organization rapidly grew to establish national headquarters as the Girl Scouts of America.

        When Mrs. Low died, the organization had grown from that first meeting of eight girls in her home to more than 140,000 members representing every state. Juliette Low was known for her vitality and leadership. Although her deafness made it somewhat difficult, her leadership roles often made interviewing others necessary and she was noted for her charm and sense of humor.

        These women are remembered for their gigantic contributions, not for their disabilities. Yet, their disabilities helped shape the characters they became and should serve as inspiration to young women, with and without disabilities, today.

        Deborah Kendrick, a Cincinnati writer who is blind, is a nationally recognized advocate for people with disabilites. Write to her at: Tempo, Cincinnati Enquirer, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202. Fax: 768-8330.