Disability Community Mourns Judy Heumann

Disabled rights activist and icon Judy Heumann died March 4 in Washington, D.C. She was 75.

A press release on the Judy Heumann Web site noted that Heumann “was at the forefront of major disability rights demonstrations; helped spearhead the passage of disability rights legislation; founded national and international disability advocacy organizations; held senior federal government positions; co-authored her memoir, Being Heumann, and its Young Adult version, Rolling Warrior; and was featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary film Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution.”

Heumann was born in Philadelphia in 1947 and contracted polio at age 2, according to the Web site news announcement. Her parents were advised to place Heumann in an institution when it became clear she would not be able to walk. Her parents brought her home, but a school principal, claiming Heumann’s wheelchair would be a fire hazard, stopped her from entering kindergarten. Heumann went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Long Island University in 1969, and a master’s degree in Public Health from the University of California, Berkeley in 1975.

Her Web site biography notes she was “instrumental in developing and implementing national disability rights legislation, including Section 504, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act; the Americans with Disabilities Act; the Rehabilitation Act; and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

“In addition, Judy helped found the Berkeley 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 was the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services during Pres. Bill Clinton’s administration from 1993 till 2001. Under Pres. Barack Obama, Heumann served as Special Advisor for International Disability Rights at the U.S. State Department.

In a March 7 social media post, NCART said, “NCART mourns the loss of a CRT [Complex Rehab Technology] advocacy pioneer, Judith Heumann, who passed away on March 4, 2023. Judith ‘Judy’ Heumann has been widely considered the mother of the disability rights movement. May your legacy live on in our hearts forever.”

Tributes lauding Heumann were posted by CBS Sunday Morning, Smithsonian, the American Civil Liberties Union, NPR, and PBS, as well as by people with disabilities who explained the impact Heumann had on their lives.

Ady Barkan, co-Executive Director of Be a Hero and a wheelchair rider, said, “This weekend, Rachael, Carl, Willow, and I went to the UCSB [University of California, Santa Barbara] basketball game. We sat right on the court, near the Gauchos’ bench, in accessible seats. The staff went out of their way to be helpful. We owe so much to Judy Heumann.”

“I am extremely sad for the passing of my hero,” Vicenzo Piscopo, CEO of United Spinal, said in a March 4 social media post. “What a gift to humanity she was! @judithheumann we will miss you and promise that we will continue the fight on your behalf and in your honor.”

The Squeaky Wheel, a publication devoted to disability-related satire and humor, said in a social media post on March 5, “Judy Heumann is a legend. Judy risked her health, money, and safety fighting for disability rights. Her actions advanced the movement so far that now, in 2023, a group of silly disabled people like us can go online and attack ableism with humor. Without Judy, there is no Squeaky Wheel.”

Said Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg in a March 6 Tweet, “Judy Heumann’s life was a revolution. Her life was a blessing, to all of us, in every way.”

Heumann’s memorial service took place March 8 in Washington, D.C.


About the Author

Laurie Watanabe is the editor of Mobility Management. She can be reached at lwatanabe@1105media.com.

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