Did you know that September is Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month? Spinal cord injuries affect everyone differently, and though some SCI survivors are in wheelchairs, many others (such as myself) live with “invisible disabilities” that still impact their daily lives. Thanks to advances in medicine and awareness, though, people with disabilities have more opportunities now than at any other time in history. One of the people who helped make that possible was polio survivor Barbara Greenlee Toomer.
In 2017, there were only 22 reported cases of polio anywhere in the world, thanks to global efforts to eradicate the disease, but in the 1950s, tens of thousands of children contracted polio in the United States alone each year, killing thousands and leaving many more paralyzed. In 1955, when doctors announced that they had created a successful polio vaccine, church bells rang across America in celebration.
Though the vaccine quickly caused a drop in polio infections and deaths, the vaccine was in short supply at first and was only available to the most vulnerable populations: mainly children. That was why, when Barbara Greenlee Toomer’s first child was born in 1956, the infant received a polio vaccine and Barbara did not.
Not long after, polio swept through the military base where Barbara lived. Her child remained healthy, but Barbara came down with horrible back and head pain. She was able to walk into the hospital, but she would never walk back out. Polio left her paralyzed, and she saw family and friends turn away from her and her disability.
But Barbara did not let polio slow her down. She did not just want to live with her disability, she wanted to be a person with a disability who fully lived. And she wanted the same for other people with disabilities as well. In fact, she was arrested dozens of times while protesting for disability rights, wheelchair and all. She even chained herself to buses that did not accommodate wheelchairs. To find out more about how Barbara Greenlee Toomer championed fair treatment for everyone, regardless of their abilities, read Utah Women: Pioneers, Poets & Politicians, available for preorder now on Amazon.
Below: Children with polio-induced paralysis learning to walk with leg braces.