In 1896, Ethiopians had turned back an Italian invasion at Adwa (Adowa), serving as an example of a Black-led country’s defiance of Europe. Taking inspiration from Ethiopia’s long history as an independent Black nation, two Black aviators—Hubert Julian and John C. Robinson—were drawn to Ethiopia by the events of 1935.
Alverna Babbs challenged the Civil Aeronautics Administration in 1944 for a waiver to earn her student pilot’s license. The CAA was reluctant due to Babb’s disability—a double leg amputation at the age of 13 months. With her own persistence and the assistance of Roscoe Turner, Babbs earned her waiver and her full pilot’s license in 1946, the first person with a disability to do so (as documented in the previous blog in this series celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act). After remarrying and having children, Alverna Williams took a 30 year hiatus from flying. She returned to aviation in the 1970s, determined once again to take her place in the sky.
Thirty years ago, on July 26, 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act came into effect. This important civil rights law prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. Forty-six years earlier, without the protection of law and its accommodations, Alverna Babbs, who had lost both legs as a child, fought to receive a waiver for her student license. When she succeeded, she became the first American pilot with disabilities to earn a pilot’s license.