As Women’s History Month draws to a close, we find ourselves reflecting on the life and legacy of the “mother of the disability rights movement”, Judy Heumann. This legendary disability advocate, who was on the front lines of disability rights demonstrations and helped spearhead the passage of pivotal legislation, died on March 4, 2023, at age 75.
After contracting polio as a child, she was first denied the right to attend school and then, later in life, was denied her teaching license—both because she was deemed a fire hazard for using a wheelchair. Her mother fought tirelessly for her right to an education, and she went on to sue the New York Board of Education to become the first teacher in the state of New York to use a wheelchair.
“Some people say that what I did changed the world,” Judy wrote, “But really, I simply refused to accept what I was told about who I could be. And I was willing to make a fuss about it.”
Judy founded national and international disability advocacy organizations and served in two presidential administrations. In 1977, she helped organize one of the first actions of the rising disability civil rights movement that gained national press attention: she and her fellow activists took over a federal building in San Francisco for 26 days. Their brave, nonviolent protest compelled the Carter administration to implement Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which outlawed any organization or business that accepted federal funds from discrimination against disabled people. This hard-won legislation eventually laid the groundwork for the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“Judy was a collaborative, inclusive and effective leader, and she exemplifies our vision of people with disabilities leading with power and influence,” said Emily Blum, Executive Director of Disability Lead. “She was an incredible role model for generations of disabled leaders, present and future, and we will continue the work on the path she helped clear.”
In 2020, Judy spoke at a virtual event hosted by Disability Lead and talked about the power of disability stories. She reflected:
“[Sharing my story] for me at least, it’s an empowering experience. And I feel like many people that I know, when we encourage people to tell their stories, it also makes that person a richer person not only recognizing themselves and being able to say things that they were afraid of saying, but it enriches your friends and your family and people you don’t know.
“[The more we share, the stronger our movement becomes.] One of the reasons why our movement has moved forward is because more and more people, when we get together in groups, learn that our experiences are not that unique from other disabled people. We learn from each other and we support each other.”
In addition to her memoir Being Heumann—and a version for young adults titled Rolling Warrior—those looking to learn more about how she helped spark a revolution can watch Crip Camp, the 2020 Oscar-nominated documentary film about Camp Jened, a summer camp in upstate New York for children with disabilities. And you can read a recap of our virtual event here.
Rest in power, Judy.