Remembering Judy Heumann: How Her Life and Legacy Transformed the Disability Community
Updated: Mar 23
Disability pioneer Judy Heumann passed away March 4. Since my blog focuses on disability related issues I would be doing you my readers a great disservice if I did not write a piece on the late Judy Heumann, without whom this blog may not even exist.
Judith ”Judy” Heumann was born December 18, 1947, in Philadelphia and raised in Brooklyn, NY. She contracted polio at the age of two. Fortunately for her, her parents did not subscribe to the popular theory on people with disabilities at the time. When the doctors suggested she be institutionalized because there was “no way she will ever walk” her parents chose not to listen.
Ms. Heumann began her advocacy work in the 1970s when she fought the New York Board of Education over the right to teach in a classroom. She would eventually win the battle and become the first teacher with a disability in New York. Her advocacy efforts would soon reach far beyond New York.
In 1975 Ed Roberts asked Ms. Heumann to move to California and join in the Center for Independent Living Movement. She and Mr. Roberts would eventually transform what they had built in California into a national movement. Although there is no denying that Judy Heumann’s influence on the Center for Independent Living Movement is tremendous, she would go on to make an even more significant impact on the lives of people with disabilities. She would eventually go on to help shape the landmark legislation that would become The Americans with Disabilities Act (1990). This law is the basis for the rights and freedoms that people with disabilities have today.
As a result of her work on the ADA she would later serve in the Clinton Administration from 1993 to 2001. She served as the assistant advisor in the office of Special Education and Rehabilitation; from there she would go on to play a role in the international disability rights movement and she would continue advocating until her untimely death.
Although Ms. Heumann’s accomplishments are great and would look awesome on anyone’s resume, her legacy stretches far beyond just those accomplishments. She has had a great impact on me personally. It is because I learned about her advocacy efforts from an early age that I am the person I am today. Like Ms. Heumann's family, my parents never let me use my disability as a crutch or an excuse. When I was growing up, I had chores to do and they expected me to contribute like everyone else.
I also can relate to Miss Heumann’s story because I too had dreams of being a teacher, but unlike Ms. Heumann, I let society’s perception of what people with disabilities are capable of influence my decision to stop my journey to become a teacher. However, they say things happen for a reason. Although I am not your typical “teacher,” through my advocacy work I have found that there is more than one way to teach and not all teaching is done in a classroom. Life has a way of randomly presenting us with teachable moments.
In closing, Judy Heumann will always be remembered for being a staunch disability advocate and she will always be known as the “mother of the disability rights movement.” As advocates, we have a responsibility to carry on the work of those who came before us. The fight for disability rights is not just about people with disabilities but it is also about the need for greater change within society for all.