I have a special admiration for Harriet Tubman, known as the “Moses of her people,” for her work as the “conductor” of the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. She was born into a family of slaves and at the age of five was sent to do domestic work for various households. Many people do not know that she was the first African American that served in the military. She was a spy and a nurse for the Union Army.

And yet there is another fact unknown to many people…she lived with epilepsy. I personally connect with Harriet, as I am a person living with epilepsy also. It was her giving spirit and kindness that resulted in epilepsy in her life. Harriet was only 12 years old when she saw a slave being beaten by his “master” because he was trying to escape. Harriet intervened and tried to stop it and was hit in the head with a two-pound weight—this brought on epilepsy. It is amazing to me that this woman went on to fight for people enslaved, trying to help them escape, even after what she endured. What courage and love for others she had—what a great American. Also, what a great woman living with a disability.

When I talk to young people living with epilepsy, I always talk about Harriet. She did not allow her disability to stop her in any way. She was determined to make a difference and successfully helped hundreds of people escape the horrors of slavery. Harriet was never caught and never lost a slave. She was such a threat to the Confederacy that there was a $40,000 reward to catch her dead or alive. She is, as Maya Angelou said, a “Shero.” Epilepsy did not stop her!

Harriet later went on to work with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton on the fight for Women’s Suffrage. She also founded a home for the aged later in her life not far from her home. Harriet died in 1913. In 2016, Treasurer Lew stated Harriet Tubman would be the new face of the $20.00 bill and slave owner Andrew Jackson would be on the back. This may not be in circulation for a decade, but can you imagine seeing a woman living with a disability, epilepsy, on the American currency!

From a historical standpoint, Harriet Tubman is my heroine; she is someone I look up to with deep admiration. She is a woman with epilepsy who never stopped fighting the fight for freedom—who repeatedly took action to make a difference in the lives of others. She is a woman with a disability who defied all odds to become a person of historical influence—a woman with a disability who had great impact on the people’s lives she touched and on the future of this country.

Today, as I think of myself and my epilepsy, I think how much I must thank her. She defies the laws of shame for adults and children living with epilepsy. We can accomplish so much and tear down the barriers of stigma if we come to realize our strength. Society can try to dictate that people with disabilities need to be helped, but with women like Harriet Tubman as a part of our history, we know we are stronger than stigma. We can help others. We can be bold. We can change the future. As a woman and as a person with a disability, Harriet has been a beacon of strength, perseverance, and determination to do what is right, even when what is right is not what is easy. In closing, I’d like to leave you with this quote from Harriet: “Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars and change the world.”  Harriet Tubman

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