Honoring the Life and Legacy of Judy Heumann, ‘the Mother’ of the Disability Rights Movement July 17, 2023

Honoring the Life and Legacy of Judy Heumann, ‘the Mother’ of the Disability Rights Movement

As we continue our Disability Pride Month celebrations, we feel we must pay homage to “the mother” of the Disability Rights Movement, Judith “Judy” Heumann (1947-2023).

At 18 months old, Judy contracted polio and subsequently began to use a wheelchair for her mobility. At just the age of five, Judy was denied the right to attend school because she was considered a “fire hazard” as a wheelchair user.

Later in life, Judy aspired to be a teacher, determined to change the scope of education to be more inclusive. Despite passing her oral and written exams, she was denied her teaching license by the same district that had turned her away all those years before. Judy sued the New York Board of Education and eventually became the first wheelchair user to teach in New York State. 

Judy gained national notoriety in 1974 as the leader of the 504 sit-in in San Francisco. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act said, “No otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United States shall solely on the basis of his handicap, be excluded from the participation, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” Essentially it said no program receiving federal funds could discriminate against a person with a disability. This 26-day protest– the longest sit-in at a federal building to date– led to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act being signed into law. Judy was instrumental in developing and implementing other legislation, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. These pieces of legislation have been integral in advancing the inclusion of disabled people in the US and worldwide. In 1983, Judy co-founded the World Institute on Disability with Ed Roberts and Joan Leon and served as co-director until 1993. The World Institute on Disability advances the inclusion, rights and justice of people with disabilities with the design and delivery of whole community solutions.

Judy went on to serve the Clinton and Obama administrations, was featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution and wrote, Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist.

Judy once said, “Change never happens at the pace we think it should. It happens over years of people joining together, strategizing, sharing, and pulling all the levers they possibly can. Gradually, excruciatingly slowly, things start to happen, and then suddenly, seemingly out of the blue, something will tip.” As we continue to celebrate Disability Pride Month, we hope to carry Judy’s legacy with us and to learn from the life she led.

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