Embracing disability as a critical part of diversity: Appreciating the life of Judy Heumann
I last saw Heumann in November, at a reception sponsored by the law firm Epstein Becker & Green. Heumann received their annual “Make a Difference” award and was celebrated for her lifetime commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Judy Heumann died March 4, 2023, in Washington, D.C. She was 75.
Widely regarded as “the mother” of the disability rights movement, 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 a memoir, Being Heumann, and its young adult version, Rolling Warrior, and was featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary film, Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution.
Born in 1947 in Philadelphia and raised in Brooklyn, to parents Ilse and Werner Heumann, Judy contracted polio at age two. Her doctor advised her parents to institutionalize her when it was clear that she would never be able to walk.
“Institutionalization was the status quo in 1949,” she wrote. “Kids with disabilities were considered a hardship, economically and socially.”
When Heumann attempted to enter kindergarten, the principal blocked her family from the school, labeling her a “fire hazard.” However, her parents, particularly her mother, fought back and demanded that Judy have access to a classroom. Heumann eventually was able to attend a special school, high school, Long Island University (from which she earned a B.A. in 1969), and the University of California, Berkeley, where she earned a Master’s in Public Health six years later.
Continuing her fight for civil rights, Heumann helped lead a protest that shut down traffic in Manhattan against President Nixon’s veto of the 1972 Rehabilitation Act, and she launched a 26-day sit-in at a federal building in San Francisco to get Section 504 of the revived Rehabilitation Act enforced.
Heumann was instrumental in developing and implementing national disability rights legislation, including Section 504, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Rehabilitation Act, and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
“People with disabilities are the largest minority group in the United States, but for the most part, we remain invisible,” Heumann wrote in a New York Times op-ed on the 30th anniversary of the ADA. “We represent about 20 percent of the population. We live in every state and in every community; we are members of all social and racial and ethnic classes; we are present in most families. But we are still often subject to the same unthinking responses to emerging problems that ignore the needs, issues, or concerns of disabled persons. In most cases, we remain an afterthought.”
In the same op-ed, co-authored with civil rights lawyer John Wodatch, Heumann wrote, “If the moral arc of the universe is to continue to bend toward justice, we must embrace disability as a critical part of diversity, and truly welcome one another, in both letter and spirit, as equal members of society.”
Heumann believed that deeper change would occur “only when people with disabilities routinely work and play alongside their fellow citizens.” To this I would add, people with disabilities must also be able to routinely worship and pray alongside their fellow citizens as integral participants and partners in the life of the church. Becoming familiar with the unique gifts, talents, strength, and insight of people with disabilities will lead to deeper change within and beyond communities of faith.
“I refused to accept what I was told about who I could be,” Heumann wrote, “and I was willing to make a fuss about it.”
The world is a better place because of the fuss Judy Heumann made. We should be so principled and persistent in expanding access and opportunity for people with disabilities.
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.