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"The Month in Disability History: February"

Written By:

Mike Reynolds

February 9: "Breathing Lessons" Nominated for Oscar

"Breathing Lessons," a documentary by award-winning filmmaker Jessica Yu, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject) on this date in 1997. The film later won the Oscar in this category.

In "Breathing Lessons," Yu explored "the unique world of Mark O'Brien, the poet journalist who ... lived for four decades paralyzed in an iron lung." O'Brien had polio since childhood, and Yu received much praise for her honest, candid portrayal of his life. In the film, she incorporated "the vivid imagery of O'Brien's poetry and his candid, wry, and often profound reflections on work, sex, death, and God."

Shortly after winning the Oscar, the film was shown on Cinemax, and the ensuing publicity helped with the publication of O'Brien's autobiography, "How I Became a Human Being: A Disabled Man's Quest for Independence," written with Gillian Kendall.

In 2013, "The Sessions," another movie based on O'Brien's life, was nominated for an Oscar and two Golden Globes. 

February 18: Audre Lorde Born

Audre Lorde, the Caribbean-American poet and activist, was born on this date in 1934. She struggled with vision problems throughout her life: She was so nearsighted she was considered legally blind. In later life, she battled cancer.

Lorde earned a bachelor's degree in library science from Hunter College in New York while supporting herself as a factory worker, ghostwriter, social worker, X-ray technician, medical clerk, and arts-and-crafts supervisor. In 1954, she spent a year at the National University of Mexico, and at this time she confirmed her personal and artistic identity as a lesbian and poet. 

In the 1960s, Lorde's poetry was published in Langston Hughes's "New Negro Poets USA," in various foreign anthologies, and in African-American literary magazines. She participated in the civil rights, antiwar, and feminist movements. Her first volume of poetry, "First Cities," was published in 1968. Her following collections included "Cables to Rage" (1970), "From a Land Where Other People Live" (1973), and "The Black Unicorn" (1978). She wrote two memoirs, "The Cancer Journals" (1980) and "A Burst of Light"(1988). In 1980, she cofounded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, America's first publisher for women of color. From 1991 to 1992, she was the State Poet of New York.

In her work, Lorde focused on issues of race, gender, age, and health. She said "I am defined as other in every group I'm part of" and described herself as "black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet." She died in 1992 after her 14-year struggle with breast cancer. In an African naming ceremony before her death, she took the name Gamba Adisa, which means "she who makes her meaning clear."

February 23: Nick Dupree Born

Nick Dupree is a 31-year-old writer and advocate for disability rights and long-term-care-reform. He was born in 1982 and grew up in Mobile, Alabama. His two-year campaign to change Medicaid in Alabama, "Nick's Crusade," gained national attention when he sued the state of Alabama to retain in-home services for ventilator-dependent Alabama residents over the age of 21. The lawsuit, along with pressure from state and federal officials and the media, led to the creation of a waiver program to allow up to 25 ventilator-dependent residents to continue receiving home care after age 21. In 2003, Dupree received the National Association of Protection and Advocacy Systems (NAPAS) award for Advocate of the Year. He has given keynote speeches at conferences in Chicago, Minneapolis, Washington, DC, as well as in Dr. Martin Luther King's church in Montgomery, Alabama. He moved to New York City in 2008, and lives with his domestic partner, Alejandra Ospina.

February 27: Ralph Nader Born

Ralph Nader is an attorney, political activist, and writer who is mainly known for his work as a consumer advocate. He also founded the Disability Rights Center, based in Washington, DC. The attorney and disability advocate Evan Kemp served as the director of the Disability Rights Center before being appointed to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where he laid the groundwork for the creation of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Nader was a staunch critic of corporations, which he believed undermined the fundamental American values of democracy and human rights. In addition to the Disability Rights Center, he helped found the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Center for Auto Safety, the Clean Water Action Project, the Pension Rights Center, the Project for Corporate Responsibility, Public Citizen, and several Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs). The Atlantic Monthly named Nader in its list of the 100 most influential Americans.

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