Harilyn Rousso was born with cerebral palsy in 1946 in Brooklyn, NY. Though no one could have known it at the time, the treatment her mother received at her birth that caused her disability (nurses refused to let Rousso’s mother have her baby until a doctor arrived despite her wishes, thus depriving Rousso of oxygen) also represents the type of behavior Rousso would spend her life fighting against as a feminist and disability rights activist.
After what Rousso describes as a childhood full of ups and downs and other children asking why she was “crippled,” Rousso grew up to pursue higher education despite what some saw as barriers—her disability and her gender. She earned a degree from Brandeis University in economics in 1968, which landed her a job in Washington D.C. in the Office of Economic Opportunity and also exposed her to the women’s rights movement. It was while living in D.C. that Rousso became involved in feminist activism. Rousso said in an interview that when she started working in feminist issues, she realized that “this self-loathing about my body and about my womanhood is not just a disability issue, it is a women’s issue.” Her first taste of activism fueled her to go on to get two masters degrees, one in education from Boston University and the second in social work from New York University. She had hoped to study psychotherapy but was rejected from a program because of her disability. Instead of being discouraged, this action further inspired her life work at the intersection of disability and women’s rights.
In 1979 Rousso founded her consulting services Disabilities Unlimited to help connect and empower people with disabilities. In 1984 she founded the Networking Project for Disabled Women and Girls out of the New York City YWCA.
Following the founding of her consulting and networking organizations, Rousso helped author and publish several books. To name a few— Disabled, Female, and Proud: Stories of Ten Women with Disabilities, Positive Images: Portraits of Women with Disabilities, and Disabled Yet Intact: Stories from a Life in Progress, Double Jeopardy: Addressing Gender Equity in Special Education, and Strong Proud Sisters: Girls and Young Women with Disabilities.
More recently, she has written and illustrated a children’s book about her experience growing up with cerebral palsy.
Rousso was the executive producer for the film Positive Images: Portraits of Women with Disabilities. Check out the excerpt below!