Judy Heumann changed the world, and how I see myself

On March 4, the disability community lost Judy Heumann often described as the “Mother of the Disability Rights Movement.”

During the creation of the new Disability Justice Literature course, I examined a wide variety of disabled voices in media in a way I hadn’t before. Throughout middle and elementary school I never saw myself represented in the curriculum so it was eye-opening to build a course with the sole focus on my community. One of the people I came to admire the most was Judy Heumann.

When she was two years old Judy was diagnosed with polio. She was denied access to public education at a young age, so her mother taught her for the first few years of her life. At age eight she was granted entry into a special education school which was located in a basement below the public school.

In 1970, she sued the board of education when she was denied her teaching license. She then went on to become the first teacher in New York to be in a wheelchair. This was only just the beginning of her lifelong fight for disability justice.

In 1977, she along with other disability activists organized a sit-in for the signing of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. These sit-ins were all over the country at first and then the one in a federal office building in San Francisco lasted for 24 days. It still holds the record for the longest sit-in in a federal building to date.

On day 15 of the sit-in Judy Heumann along with 24 other protesters left San Francisco and headed to Washington D.C. to talk to the president himself about signing Section 504. The president avoided these protesters, so they went to his house until he agreed to sign this legislation.

During the 1980s, the disabled community fought for the implementation of Section 504 and started to fight for their own law. The Capital Crawl took place on March 12th, 1990 when people with disabilities crawled up the capital steps to fight for the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Finally, after a decade and a half of tireless fighting, the ADA was signed into law by Gorge H.W. Bush on July 26th, 1990.

Heumann’s fight didn’t just end there. She also “helped found the Berkley Center for Independent Living, the Independent Living Movement, and the World Institute on Disability. She also served on the boards of the American Association of People with Disabilities, the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, Humanity and Inclusion, Human Rights Watch, the United States International Council on Disability, Save the Children, and several others” (Heumann’s press release).

The life of Judy Heumann is one that we can all learn from. She built an incredible foundation for the disability community and its allies to continue the fight in her legacy.

In an article from the New York Times, “Disability Pride: The High Expectations of a New Generation” by Joseph Shapiro, talks about how people are now able to feel pride in their disabled identity rather than shame. 

I certainly believe this to be true too. When I look at others with physical disabilities who live successful lives, I feel proud of myself and how far our community has come.