Remembering Judy Heumann, the Mother of Disability RightsReading Time: 3 Minutes
Last Updated: July 31, 2023
As Disability Pride Month comes to a close, Betsy Beaumon, Social Security’s Chief Transformation Officer, reflects on the legacy of disability rights leader, Judy Heumann.
On March 4, 2023, the world lost one of the leading voices for people with disabilities. Because of her pivotal and relentless work throughout her life, Judy was often called the “mother of disability rights.” We lost Judy way too soon; however, it seems to have been on her own terms. She passed away on “March Forth” and her funeral services fell on International Women’s Day. It is a reminder of the force of will that Judy displayed throughout her life.
As Judy described in her 2020 book, Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist, she contracted polio at the age of 2 and began to use a wheelchair. She was initially denied the right to attend school because she was considered a “fire hazard.” Her parents fought to get her admitted. After graduating from Long Island University in Brooklyn, New York in 1969, Judy was denied her teaching license due to her disability. She sued the Board of Education and became the first wheelchair user to be a teacher in the state of New York.
“Some people say that what I did changed the world,” she wrote, “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.” — Judy Heumann
She began to fight for civil rights for all people with disabilities, famously including a 26-day sit-in at a Federal building in San Francisco. This action led to the implementation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which became a model for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that we celebrate every year in July. The ADA became a model for the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Judy worked on both the ADA and the CRPD in various roles. She co-founded two major nonprofits that are active today: the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, California and the World Institute on Disability in Oakland, California.
Judy was also a Federal Leader. She deeply understood the critical role and responsibility of government in removing systemic barriers. Her work at the Department of Education in the 1990s helped pave the way for students with disabilities to physically attend public school and learn the same curriculum as their non-disabled peers, including via the latest digital, accessible educational materials.
I was working on providing digital accessible materials to both U.S. students and people around the globe when we met. Judy had just assumed a new role as Special Advisor for Disability Rights at the Department of State. She was keenly interested in how her role could expand the reach of State’s portfolio of programs to the billion people with disabilities around the world. I was also looking at how my nonprofit organization could better support disability rights efforts. Her many introductions made our own work possible.
I remember seeing Judy’s work across the State Department take hold as programs not previously inclusive of disability rights or accessibility asked for our input and added more explicit disability programming.
Even though Judy’s federal career was spent at the Departments of Education and State, she influenced countless people across the Federal government, including our agency. As Disability Pride Month comes to a close, let’s build on Judy’s legacy by continuing to reduce the burdens people with disabilities face when they access our services and programs.
Did you find this Information helpful?