The Global Legacy of Black Disabled Activist Don Galloway

black and white photo of dozens of people gathered - including people of color and people with visible disabilities - in protest
Photo courtesy of Olin Collection
An activist who championed the inclusion of people of color in the independent living movement, Don Galloway (1938 - 2011) also leveled barriers for people with disabilities to advance to high-level careers abroad.

If you know your black disability history, you may know the name Don Galloway.

I didn't. At least not until the most recent Ed Roberts Day.

Every year on January 23rd, Ed Roberts Day commemorates the life and achievements of - you guessed it - Ed Roberts, the disability activist widely known in the disability community as the "father of the independent living movement." Scrolling through #EdRobertsDay posts on social media that day, this photo of Ed and its descriptive caption caught my eye:

"A 1974 black & white photo of 2 men on Berkeley's campus. A black man with an impressive Afro and dashiki holding the guide dog harness of a German Shepherd is walking beside a white man with a beard and long hair wearing a button down shirt and using a power wheelchair. Don Galloway, Manager of Blind Services, and Ed Roberts, Executive Director of the fledgling Center for Independent Living."

It is truly an image to behold! But who was Don Galloway, this sharply-dressed man in the photo? Let's take a look at a few need-to-know facts about this fascinating activist who:

  • Joined fellow disability rights pioneer Ed Roberts to work at the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, California as its director of services for blind people
  • Advocated for the independent living movement to be more inclusive of people of color
  • Successfully challenged discriminatory laws that barred people with disabilities from serving as employees in the United States Foreign Service
  • Was appointed the first blind person to serve as a Peace Corps Director in Jamaica, where he was responsible for the placement and support of 160 volunteers
  • Traveled throughout Central and South America, conducting research on the culture and political involvement of African Americans
  • Provided technical assistance to organizations in Zimbabwe, Japan, Mexico, and countries in the Caribbean
  • Participated in a U.S. Department of State-funded Atlantic Corridor exchange between people with disabilities in the United States and Northern Ireland

Granted, a few bullet points won't do justice to the full scope of Galloway as a person or his impact. For that reason, find links to further reading below. 

In addition to Galloway's impact on American history, disability history, black history, and all of their intersections, I was excited to learn that he had a hand in shaping MIUSA's history too! In the early days of the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange (a project of the U.S. Department of State supported in its implementation by MIUSA), Galloway lent his support to NCDE's message that people with disabilities should have equal opportunities to work in global careers. In interviews for the publications "Preparing for an International Career" and "Survival Strategies for Going Abroad: A Manual for People with Disabilities," he discussed his experiences abroad, the hurdles and rewards of entering a global career, the dynamics of identity when traveling abroad, and shared advice for others trying to break into the field.

On fostering intercultural understanding through international exchange:

“I think the highlight for me is all the people that I’ve met; I know I could go back to these countries and these people are like brothers and sisters. I’ve traveled in Zimbabwe, and I have a network of friends there, not only on a personal level but professionally. It gave me insight on what some of the issues are that they are dealing with. We tend to put everything into perspective of our culture, and when you start looking through their eyes, you see a whole other kind of dynamic.”

On traveling to Africa and the African diaspora:

“They were so delighted to have a brother with a disability come to their countries,” he says. “I came with a different perspective from the typical middle-class white person with a disability.” When he traveled in Africa and in the Caribbean, Galloway says he was treated like “a long-lost brother-almost like royalty!” He worked closely with the Southern African Federation of the Disabled. “When I left, they rolled out a red carpet. Literally! Someone called ahead to the airport, and they rolled out this red carpet up to the airplane!"

On the interplay of race, disability, socioeconomic status and nationality when traveling abroad:

Don Galloway found that throughout the developing world, he was more or less protected from the negative attitudes directed at local blind people. “They see that you are an affluent person, because you dress well and so on,” says Galloway. “They treat you better than they do their own people with disabilities. It’s more of an economic thing than a disability thing.” For example, Galloway noted that in Zimbabwe, men with all types of disabilities have little chance of getting married, because of the assumption that they cannot work and support a family. On the other hand, Galloway found that as an African-American man, many women were drawn to him regardless of his blindness. In many countries, disabled Americans are assumed to be relatively wealthy, powerful and independent based on their country of origin, as well as their ability to travel. “You got here, so you must have some income,” is the attitude, according to Galloway.

On applying for jobs in global fields:

"I got a call from the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities that the Peace Corps was looking for qualified candidates for a Peace Corps Director position. I called and interviewed. There were no posts in Africa, where I wanted to go, but I had a choice between Belize and Jamaica. I chose Jamaica and stayed there for two and a half years."

On people with disabilities entering the international development field:

“My belief system is a person with a disability shouldn’t be hired to just work with disabled organizations and on disabled issues. That may be the first step, but we should branch out. And when people like Judy [Heumann at the World Bank] are appointed to lead, they can look back and say, ‘There are 100 people with disabilities now working throughout this agency.’ And that’s the key of success to me – is to see how we bring in other brothers and sisters to work in all capacities.”

As I write this on the heels of Ed Roberts Day, in the thick of Black History Month, on the eve of Peace Corps Week, and leading up to a milestone anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, I hope more folks will celebrate the many contributions of Don Galloway. Perhaps one way to honor his legacy is to actively seek out people with disabilities - especially people with disabilities of color and other identities - to participate in international experiences, global leadership opportunities, and careers in international fields.

Further Reading

Donald Galloway obituary in the Washington Post

Don Galloway page by the Lead On Network

More African American leaders and advocates with disabilities

NCDE resources for people with disabilities entering global careers


Ashley Holben