Women Who Inspire Us: Judy Heumann

Judy Heumann sits in an office, smiling in a red shirt.

Judith (Judy) Heumann is known as the “Mother of the Disability Rights Movement.” After getting polio as a baby, she spent most of her life in a wheelchair. Growing up, she was required to attend special schools for people with disabilities. She and her mother fought the district for her to attend public school and won. This experience was her introduction into disability rights advocacy.

Leading the disability rights movement

Heumann also dreamed of becoming a teacher. After passing her exams, the state of New York denied her a teaching license. In response, she sued the Board of Education for discrimination. The case received a lot of media and attention, throwing Heumann into the center of the disability rights movement. The case settled without trial, and Heumann became the first person in a wheelchair to teach in New York City.

She later organized many protests. When the U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, Joseph Califano, refused to sign the first federal set of laws protecting people with disabilities, she led a protest. Known as the 504 Sit-In, it lasted 28 days. It remains the longest peaceful sit-in in U.S. history. The protest came to an end when Califano agreed to sign.

Worldwide efforts supporting disability rights

Heumann’s early work set the stage for other important laws such as:

  • The American with Disabilities Act
  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
  • The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Heumann served as assistant secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services during the Clinton administration. President Obama later named her special advisor on International Disability Rights for the U.S. State Department.

She was also co-director of the World Institute on Disability and founded the Berkeley Center for Independent Living. Heumann served on many boards over her lifetime in support of disability rights.

Being Heumann and later life

In 2020, Heumann published her memoir, Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoire of a Disability Rights Activist. She was also featured in the 2020 documentary “Crip Camp,” which was later nominated for an Oscar.

Judy Heumann passed away in March of 2023. Her legacy lives on in the many important organizations and laws she helped bring to life. You can learn more about her story at judithheumann.com.