Judith Heumann, ‘Mother of the Disability Rights Movement,’ Has Died

She fought for historic legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Disability rights leader, activist and author Judith “Judy” Heumann died on Saturday at age 75, her team confirmed on Saturday.

Known as the “mother of the disability rights movement,” Heumann became an internationally recognized leader for her instrumental work pushing for historic legislation, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act.

Born in Philadelphia and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Heumann became physically disabled and a wheelchair user after developing polio at an early age in 1949. At 5 years old, she was denied the right to attend school because she was considered a “fire hazard.” However, her parents fought for her right to an education, and she eventually attended a special school and high school. Ultimately, she went on to study at Long Island University, where she organized protests and rallies advocating for students with disabilities to have better access to campus buildings and facilities. She later received a master’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley.

In 1970, Heumann was denied her New York teaching license by the Board of Education despite passing the oral and written exams. She sued the board for discrimination and settled without a trial. As a result, Heumann became the first wheelchair user to teach in New York City.

Heumann was a founding member of the Berkeley Center for Independent Living — the first grassroots center — in 1975, where she served on the board for five years. She also helped launch the Independent Living Movement, which espoused that disabled people should have access to resources and services to allow them to live in their communities.

In 1977, Heumann fought for meaningful regulations to the Rehabilitation Act of 1978. Finally, after a 28-day sit-in in the U.S. Health, Education, and Welfare federal building, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act was signed, marking the first U.S. federal legislation granting civil rights protection for people with disabilities.

In 1983, Heumann co-founded the World Disability Institute, which was one of the first global disability rights organizations founded and led by disabled people to fully integrate people with disabilities into the communities around them. Heumann has also served as a board member for disability organizations, including the American Association of People with Disabilities, the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund and more.

Between 1993 and 2001, Heumann worked in the Clinton administration as the assistant secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services in the Department of Education. From 2002 to 2006, she served as the World Bank’s first adviser on disability and development. In 2010, former President Barack Obama appointed Heumann to serve as the first special advisor on the international disability rights for the State Department.

Heumann’s story was featured in the 2020 award-winning and Oscar-nominated Netflix documentary “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution, which captured the groundbreaking start of the disability rights movement and its early leaders.

In 2016, Heumann delivered a TedTalk focused on disability rights and was featured on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah in 2020. In addition, she released a memoir titled “Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist” in 2020, followed by a young adult version titled “Rolling Warrior” the following year.

“Some people say that what I did changed the world,” she wrote in her memoir. “But really, I simply refused to accept what I was told about who I could be. And I was willing to make a fuss about it.”

Heumann uplifted the voices within the disability community through her podcast, “The Heumann Perspective.” In 2021 the Heumann-Armstrong Award was launched to honor disabled students who have fought against ableism in schools and higher education.

She received several awards in her lifetime, including seven honorary doctorates. She gave a commencement speech at New York University in May 2022, where she received her most recent honorary doctorate.

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