Judy Heumann: An Advocate to Remember

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Judy Heumann, “mother of the disability rights movement”, passes away at age 75. The changes she fought her whole life to make a reality will forever impact the disabled community. 

Judith “Judy” Heumann, at five years of age, was told her wheelchair was a fire hazard and was denied the right to attend public school. That was in 1952. Since then, Ms. Huemann has advocated for disability rights and has been internationally recognized as a leader in the disability community. On March 4th, 2023, Ms. Huemann passed away at the age of 75. 

In 1949, in Brooklyn, New York, Ms. Huemann contracted polio at just two years old, becoming a quadriplegic and she’s been a wheelchair user since. Her parents played a huge role throughout her childhood in helping advocate for her rights, but they could only do so much. They homeschooled Ms. Huemann until, at nine years old, she was finally accepted at the public school, but they made her take classes sequestered in the basement with the other disabled students. Ms. Huemann quickly learned how to advocate for herself and fought her whole life to advocate for others. 

"Disability only becomes a tragedy when society fails to provide the things we need to lead our lives — job opportunities or barrier-free buildings, for example," Ms. Huemann said to Joseph Shapiro with NPR. "It is not a tragedy to me that I'm living in a wheelchair."

Despite obstacle after obstacle the world put in her way, in 1975, Ms. Huemann graduated from the University of California at Berkley with her master’s degree in public health. While in school, she helped found Berkeley Center for Independent Living which launched the independent living movement globally. 

Ms. Huemann sought her teaching license, but her application was denied due to her lower limb paralysis. While the case was settled in court, it inspired Ms. Huemann to establish Disabled in Action, a civil rights organization dedicated to ending discrimination against disabled people. After winning the trial, Ms. Huemann became the first teacher in New York to use a wheelchair. 

The Rehabilitation Act, a federal law meant to prohibit discrimination based on disability in federal programs and federally funded programs, was signed into law in 1973. Four years later, in 1977, the law had yet to be implemented. People grew enraged. The American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities released a statement detailing that if the law was not enacted by April 4th, there would be national protests. 

“We will no longer allow the government to oppress disabled individuals,” Ms. Huemann said later that spring at a special congressional hearing. “We want the law enforced. We will accept no more discussion of segregation.”

April 5th, 1977, national protests broke out. Protestors held sit-ins at federal buildings across the US. Ms. Heumann, with over 100 other disabled protestors, gathered at the regional Health, Education and Welfare office in San Francisco. The law was implemented on April 28th and the San Francisco sit-in lasted two more days, making it the longest peaceful sit-in in US history. 

Ms. Huemann spent nearly 20 years working for the federal government in varying positions of advocacy from being appointed Assistant Secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services in the Department of Education under the Clinton administration to being the first Special Advisor for International Disability Rights at the U.S. Department of State under the Obama administration. 

Ms. Huemann has been featured in many documentaries on disability rights, like The Power of 504, Lives Worth Living and the Academy Award Nominated documentary, Crip Camp. As a Senior Fellow at the Ford Foundation, she wrote “Road Map for Inclusion: Changing the Face of Disability in Media.” Her memoir, co-written with Kristen Joiner, “Being Human,” was recorded by Ali Stroker who was the first wheelchair user to perform on Broadway. 

Her work, both in and out of the government, has changed the face of the disability rights movement and has helped to improve the lives of disabled people across America. Ms. Huemann suffered a lot from the world around her being inaccessible and unaccommodating and she wanted to ensure that no one else would ever struggle the way that she did. 

Each and every single one of us deserves to have access to this world. We are still fighting every day for our rights, but we’ve come so far since 1952. Thank you, Judy Huemann, for all you did for us. We will not soon forget you or your contributions to the movement. We will not stop advocating for ourselves like you taught us to.