The disability rights activist Judith (Judy) Heumann died in Washington, D.C. on the afternoon of March 4, 2023. She was a fearless advocate for inclusion of disabled people in society, and she was an effective organizer of nonviolent protests when officials were not listening. Her advocacy, in solidarity with many others, dramatically improved the quality of life for people with disabilities in the United States and around the world. Read on to learn how she influenced my life and work.
Judy contracted polio when she was a small child and became disabled. A school principal refused to register her for kindergarten because he claimed that her wheelchair was a fire hazard. Her parents spent years arguing with officials before she was allowed to go to school.
In 1970, the New York Board of Education refused to give Judy a teaching license because they feared she could not help evacuate students or herself in case of fire. She filed a lawsuit against them and she became the first teacher in New York state to use a wheelchair.
Her personal experience of discrimination prepared Judy to be a fearless advocate for others. In 1972 she led a protest that blocked rush hour traffic on Madison Avenue outside President Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign headquarters because he vetoed the Rehabilitation Act.
Later Nixon signed the Rehabilitation Act to prevent government agencies from discriminating against people with disabilities, but the Nixon and Ford administrations did not write the federal regulations to implement the law.
In 1977 she launched a 26-day sit-in at a federal building in San Francisco pressuring the Carter administration to write the regulations implementing Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Section 504 became a model for the Americans with Disabilities Act, (ADA) of 1990 that extended the principles of non-discrimination to all public accommodations, employment, transportation, and access to state and local government programs.
Judy Heumann served in a number of prominent roles later in her career.
• 1993-2001, Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services.
• 2002-2006, the first Advisor on Disability and Development at the World Bank.
• 2010-2017, the first Special Advisor for International Disability Rights at the U.S. State Department.
She served as an adviser to many non-profit organizations including the FDR Memorial Legacy Committee. That is my personal connection to her, but I have benefited from her advocacy since I was a child. The 504 sit-in allowed me to go to public school. Her activism for the ADA, passed when I was a teenager, strengthened my right to live and work in the adult world.
I highly recommend her autobiography Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist, co-authored with Kristen Joiner and released in February 2020. She also wrote a Young Adult version called Rolling Warrior.
She was featured in the documentary “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution”. Filmmakers James LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham found forgotten film of a summer camp in upstate New York for children with disabilities and used it to explore issues of identity.
Here is the list of articles that I consulted for this post.
The World Mourns the Passing of Judy Heumann, Disability Rights Activist. Press Release posted by the family.
Activist Judy Heumann led a reimagining of what it means to be disabled
By Joseph Shapiro, All Things Considered, National Public Radio, March 4, 2023.
Judy Heumann, Who Led the Fight for Disability Rights, Dies at 75 The New York Times, March 5, 2023.
Loss of an Icon: Disability Legend Judy Heumann Passes Away. By Mary E Dolan, FDR Memorial Legacy Committee, March 6, 2023.