Women’s History Month: Remembering Judy Heumann

Posted by on Mar 16, 2023 in People and Culture, Stuff You Should Know

Women’s History Month is celebrated every March in the United States. This is a time to honor and celebrate women’s contributions to American history. This week btw takes a closer look at the life and contributions of Judy Heumann, a leading disability rights activist. Heumann died on March 4, 2023, at the age of 75. But before that, she was an activist for people with disabilities in the United States. 

Who Was Judy Heumann? 

When she was eighteen months old, Heumann contracted polio and spent three years in an iron lung. She lost her ability to move her arms or her legs. When she was five years old, she wasn’t allowed to register for kindergarten because the principal said her wheelchair was a fire hazard. Her mother refused to take no for an answer. Eventually Heumann was allowed to attend school. She studied to become a speech therapist, which was one of the few jobs available to a woman in a wheelchair. But the New York City Board of Education refused to give her a license. They said her wheelchair would prevent her from being able to evacuate children in an emergency. Heumann sued the city. She won, becoming New York City’s first teacher in a wheelchair.  

Woman in a wheelchair using a ramp
Heumann’s activism helped people with disabilities get government support.

This event also prompted Heumann to co-found a protest group called Disabled in Action. She moved to Berkeley, California, where her group gained national attention in the 1970s. The Disabled in Action group occupied federal buildings, held protests, and demanded accountability from legislators as part of the growing disability civil rights movement. A protest that Heumann organized in San Francisco lasted for a month. It was the longest nonviolent occupation of a federal building in U.S. history.  

These actions led the Jimmy Carter presidential administration to implement Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. This legislation said that no government agency or private business that accepted federal funds could discriminate against someone because of their disability. The Rehabilitation Act was in place during the Nixon and Ford administrations, but the rules for enforcing section 504 were not defined and put into action until the San Francisco protest. This legislation later became the model for the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

A Lasting Legacy 

Heumann’s activism spread far beyond the United States. By 2015, 181 countries had passed civil rights legislation modeled after the ADA. Heumann travelled to more than thirty countries to speak about the rights of people with disabilities. In 1993, Heumann became Assistant Secretary of Education under President Bill Clinton. Heumann later worked as special assistant to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She also served as a board member or adviser to international institutions such as the World Bank and Human Rights Watch. 

Heumann published her autobiography in February 2020. Shortly after that, she was featured in an Oscar-nominated documentary called Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution. The film looked at the way children with disabilities are treated, while also exploring the pride that exists within the community of people with disabilities. At the time the footage was filmed, Heumann was a counselor at the camp in the Catskills, which she had attended since she was eight years old.  

Heumann died at the age of 75 in Washington, D.C. 

What Do You Think? Judy Heumann once said, “Disability only becomes a tragedy when society fails to provide the things we need to lead our lives.” What do you think she meant by this? Explain.