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The Big Wins of Judy Heumann

Here at LittleWins, we know that every small advance is a milestone for our families and our community. Today, I want to talk about someone who has turned her Little Wins into Big Wins over a lifetime of advocacy and perseverance.

Judith (Judy) Heumann has fought her entire career to help society embrace what people with disabilities offer our world – and empower them to pursue their best lives. In the process, she has changed society for the better. 

Heumann has played a giant role in forcing our leaders and institutions to recognize the rights of people with disabilities and enact policies and programs that support their success.

Her early leadership in the disability rights movement helped pave the way for 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

If you haven’t read her 2020 book: Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist, now’s the time! 

Meanwhile, read on about the amazing Judy Heumann.

Early years

As a baby in 1949, Heumann contracted polio. As she explains, “I was in an iron lung for three months and in and out of the hospital for three years.” She uses a wheelchair. When her local public school banned her from class because she couldn’t walk, her mother Lisa, a community activist, fought the decision. While she was eventually able to attend a school for kids with disabilities, her struggle for inclusion had just begun.

From late childhood to early adulthood, Heumann attended Hunter, New York-based Camp Jened, a camp for children and youth with disabilities. 

There, Heumann says, “we had the same joy together, the same anger over the way we were treated and the same frustrations at opportunities we didn’t have.” The friends she made would work with her as disability rights activists throughout their lives.

Crip Camp, the 2020 documentary produced by President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, features Heumann and her fellow campers – as kids at the camp, and later in their activist roles as adults. (Watch it!)

First flights of activism

As a student majoring in education and speech therapy at Long Island University in Brooklyn, Heumann organized rallies to demand access ramps to buildings and for the rights of students with disabilities to live in the dorm.

In 1970, she applied for a teaching license with the New York City Board of Education. When her application was rejected based on her disability, she joined others to sue the board. After the judge recommended that the school board re-consider its policy, the case was settled out of court. Heumann became the first wheelchair user in New York City to teach – and taught elementary school there for three years.

News of her lawsuit touched a collective nerve of people with disabilities around the country. As a result of the outpouring of support, she and her colleagues founded Disabled in Action (DIA), which uses protest and political action to create laws that protect and support people with disabilities.

After President Richard Nixon vetoed early versions of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Heumann and eighty activists staged a sit-in protest that halted traffic on Madison Avenue. 

Launching a career of advocacy

At the urging of disability rights activist Ed Roberts (the first wheelchair user at the University of Berkely), Heumann became the deputy director of the Center for Independent Living. There, she proposed and supported national legislation for programs in special education, disability research, vocational rehabilitation and independent living.

Change was coming. But for disability rights activists, the fight was just beginning. Section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act promised federal civil rights protection for persons with disabilities. 

When U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) Joseph Califano refused to sign the act’s regulations in early 1977, the disability rights community took action. Heumann and other activists led the now-famous 504 Sit-In at HEW offices across the country. The 504 sit-in Heumann led at HEW’s San Francisco office lasted 25 days.

Also documented in Crip Camp, these sit-ins were the biggest collective effort in history among people with different abilities around the country. They achieved national attention and support for the protestors’ cause. As a result, Califano signed the Education of All Handicapped Children Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act on April 28, 1977.

National and international leadership

Heumann’s journey as activist and teacher has taken her to the highest ranks of influence. She has mainstreamed disability rights and the right to independent living across the globe. As she noted in this 2019 article, “International disability rights is simply good policy. The political participation and leadership of disabled people, including those who belong to underrepresented groups, is crucial to resolving conflict and sustaining peaceful and prosperous democracies.”

In 1983, she joined her colleagues Ed Roberts and Joan Leon to found the World Institute on Disability

She served as the first Director for the Department on Disability Services, where she led the Developmental Disability Administration and the Rehabilitation Services Administration.

She served as the US Department of Education’s Assistant Secretary of the Office of Education and Rehabilitation Services in the Clinton Administration.

She served as the World Bank Group’s first Advisor on Disability and Development.

From 2010 to 2017, she served as Special Advisor on International Disability Rights for the U.S. State Department in the Obama Administration. 

Changing stereotypes in philanthropy and the media

From 2017 to 2019, Heumann helped the Ford Foundation (and other philanthropic organizations) advance the inclusion of disability in their work in the role of Senior Fellow. 

If, like me, you want to see media accurately and fairly represent people with disabilities, I highly recommend the Ford Foundation paper Roadmap for Inclusion: Changing the Face of Disability in Media that Heumann co-authored with Katherine Salinas and Michellie Hess.

Get More Heumann!

Judy Heumann inspires thousands of others to speak out for the rights of those with physical or developmental disabilities – and for a world that embraces diversity in all forms. 

But she’ll be the first to tell you the work is not yet done. 

There are perceptions still to be changed. People still stare. Employers still discriminate. It’s up to all of us to carry the torch Judy and so many others have lit – and continue to improve opportunities for our community.

Want more Heumann? Listen and watch Judy here:

Judy’s October 2016 TED Talk

NPR interview, July 26, 2020:  One Laid Groundwork for the ADA; The Other Grew Up Under its Promises 

ADA Live, June 3, 2020: History and the Future of Disability Rights

New York Times, July 20, 2020: We Should Celebrate. But There is Still Work to Do.

And, of course, follow Judy’s social feeds:

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