Judy Heumann's Legacy for the Disability Rights Movement

Judy Heumann was often referred to as the “mother” of the disability rights movement. An activist and leader in the disability community, Heumann played a vital role in ensuring basic rights and access for disabled people across the U.S. and beyond, leaving a lasting legacy of progress and advocacy.

Judy's Early Life and Personal Struggles with Disability 

Heumann’s journey with disability began in 1949 when she started using a wheelchair at 18 months of age due to a diagnosis of Polio. At the time, a Polio vaccine had not been developed, causing widespread concern. The disease primarily affected the spinal cord and was commonly diagnosed in children under the age of 5. While modern medicine has largely eliminated Polio, Heumann’s life, and her diagnosis, were widely misunderstood by those around her, causing her to face struggles with disability from a young age. When Heumann attempted to attend Kindergarten, the principal at her local school refused, referring to Heumann as a “fire hazard” due to her wheelchair and her inability to walk. Luckily, Heumann's parents were great advocates, and after years of demanding Heumann be allowed to attend public school, she was permitted to learn in the basement of a New York school, separate from her peers without disabilities. She once recalled her school experience stating, “In some way, even when we were that young, we all knew that we were being sidelined.”

Living With Polio: Judy's Formative Years 

In her childhood and teen years, Heumann attended Camp Jened, a camp for people with disabilities located in her home state of New York. The Netflix documentary Crip Camp traces the origins of the disability rights movement back to Camp Jened, highlighting Heumann and fellow camp attendees who went on to advocate for the rights disabled people know today. Together, the group mobilized, organizing protests across the U.S. like the 504 sit-ins and Capitol Crawl, which led to the passage of laws to ensure equity and inclusion for disabled people.

Education Barriers: The Fight to Become a Teacher 

Heumann’s past experiences with disability discrimination furthered her advocacy. After applying to be a teacher at the same school that once denied her admittance to kindergarten, she was denied a teaching license. She passed all her oral and written exams, but because she couldn’t walk, her medical exam was considered failed. Heumann filed a federal lawsuit against the New York Board of Education. The suit was heard by a judge, who suggested the Board of Education reconsider their decision to allow Heumann her teaching license. When they did, Heumann became the first wheelchair user to teach in the state of New York. 

Founding Disabled in Action: Igniting Change 

Heumann founded Disabled in Action after her lawsuit against the New York Board of Education. The group, which consisted of multiple former Jened campers, formed multiple committees, with their first focus being on the deinstitutionalization of disabled people. During the 1970s many people with disabilities were kept away from society in institutions. News broke of a hospital in New York that housed disabled individuals with one care attendant for roughly 50 disabled people, causing basic needs of hygiene and food to go unmet. Seeing the poor treatment of disabled people in these institutions, Disabled in Action worked to implement anti-discrimination laws, so people with disabilities could enjoy the same rights as those without disabilities. 

The Birth of a Movement: Disabled in Action's Beginnings 

In 1972, the Rehabilitation Act was written. Within the law was Section 504, which would prohibit disability discrimination in any federally funded organizations. This meant hospitals, schools, transportation, and other government funded operations would be required to be accessible to people with disabilities. 

Protests and Advocacy: Making Voices Heard 

When president Nixon vetoed The Rehabilitation act, Disabled in Action held a demonstration outside of Nixon’s headquarters in New York City where they blocked off multiple streets in protest for Section 504. In 1973, Nixon signed The Rehabilitation Act, but Section 504, was not enforced, leaving disabled people without basic access to federally funded, public spaces.

The Roots of the 504 Protests 

With little enforcement and resistance from organizations who did not want to make spaces accessible to disabled people, Disabled in Action mobilized again in 1977, protesting at federal offices across the U.S. The group reached the office of the Regional Director of Health, Education and Wellness, but after his refusal to speak with other lawmakers, the protesters stayed outside his office until he listened to their testimonies.

The 26-Day Sit-in: An Unprecedented Activist Action 

Led by Kitty Cone and Heumann, the protestors took a vote to see who wanted to stay overnight, which eventually turned into a 26-day long protest. To get rights activists to leave, access to phones and hot water were cut off, but the group adapted, just as they had to an inaccessible society. They communicated with people outside the building through sign language and contacted members of the Black Panthers to provide food. Other civil rights groups provided mattresses and medical care so people could continue to protest until Section 504 was signed. After years of resistance from government leaders, the group headed to Washington, D.C., where they protested outside buildings that members of the government visited. 

Her Influence on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) 

There was very little media coverage of the disability rights movement at the time. In fact, Evan White, a news reporter, was one of the only people covering the disability rights protests. A strike among news organizations caused channels to get very little news, and White’s coverage of the disability rights protests soon appeared on TV stations across the country. With national news coverage, the U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare signed section 504. Access to public schools and healthcare facilities, as well as building modifications like ramps and elevators were required by law in federally funded places, but the fight for disability rights was not over. Discrimination in employment and in private, non-federally funded businesses was still widespread. On March 12, 1990, a group of disabled activists held a Capitol Crawl, where they crawled up the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building, advocating for the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and in July of that same year, the ADA was passed. The law would ensure access and inclusion of disabled people in any space open to the public.

The World Bank and Beyond: Judy's Global Influence 

From 2002-2006, Heumann worked at the World Bank. She was the first Adviser on Disability and Development, where she led the Bank’s work with governments and society to include people with disabilities on a global scale. In 1983, Heumann co-founded the World Institute on Disability; one of the first global organizations to be continually led by disabled people. The institute works to ensure access and equity for people with disabilities across the globe through research, policy, and consulting. In 2010, Heumann was appointed by President Obama as the first Special Advisor for International Disability Rights, where she promoted inclusion and access for people with disabilities globally.

Judy's Lasting Impact on Modern Disability Rights 

Heumann not only left a lasting impact on the world, but she advocated for greater inclusion and access for disabled people. She once said, “I wanna see a feisty group of disabled people around the world…if you don’t demand what you believe in for yourself, you’re not gonna get it.” Her sentiment remains true today, as many disabled people continue to advocate for changes in laws and among society to create a fully inclusive and accessible world. 

Want to learn more about the ADA and Disability rights? Check out the disability rights section of our article library, and the related articles below.

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