Disability, General

Remembering Judy Heumann, the Mother of Disability Rights

July 31, 2023 • By

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Last Updated: July 31, 2023

Photo of Judy HeumannAs 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.

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  1. Sundaram P.

    Thank You Judy Neumann.
    I was on Social Security Disability for a few years and that is what helped me to survive.

  2. Arthur L.

    I had no interaction with Judy but as I remember
    as a little kid taking medicine for polio on a suger lump. RIP JUDY.

  3. Gary H.

    Pastor Jamal Bryant and Bishop Bryant had a dual message about “Who We Are”. Based on a study, it was said that we are part Nature, part Nurture and part Choice. The pastors added that we are also part NERVE. An important part of who we are is the nerve we exhibit to fight for who we want to be under the guide of righteousness. Judy Heuman’s story and national representation is an awe-inspiring one. I never knew her before this blog and now I am proud to now embrace her story and importance. Thank you Office of Transformation for sharing this.

  4. MR M.


  5. Mariana B.

    Nobody did samthing to change the rules of cutting SS benefits in a half becouse i orched as a cleaner for judge’s offices on Justice Center, Cuyahoga county. ( the job was considered a governmental job) Now i am retired and have 12 hundreds by monts to live with. So upset and disappointed about this.

  6. mary

    Thank you Judy! For all your hard work and dedication to bring light to the Disability Rights. You are a blessing and your memory will live on. You made a huge stride for us! Thank you again! God’s Blessings:)

  7. Liz B.

    Judy Heumann was a true American hero and international icon. She passed away on March 4th as if to say, march forth for disability rights. She literally fought her entire life for the rights of people with disabilities. There should be a statue of her somewhere in D.C. to commemorate her.

    • Eurilda M.

      Eurilda Matrana glorify you have to come by here disability for her an everyone on disability thank you for what you did to me God bless you and your family

    • Joni H.

      Yes, there should be a permanent commemoration of persons like Judy who devoted their whole lives to the improvement of other people’s lives. It must at times have required the greatest emotional and physical endurance.

  8. Cindy A.

    I have been working with disabled youth, middle school and high school for about 20 years, and I LOVE it. It is the best job ever.

  9. Barbara C.

    The article ‘Remembering Judy Neumann, Mother of Disability Rights’, written by Betsy Beaumon, was a very meaningful and inspiring article to read. I plan on reading Judy’s book. I need to write the title down, so that I won’t forget it when I go to order it.
    When I read Judy’s quote; regarding suing the board of education, when her teaching license was not given to her due to her disability, whereby she won; this caused my eyes to well with emotional tears. I reread it. It was beautiful and uplifting. I appreciate Judy Neumann’s works of barriers breaking for all peoples with disabilities and for everyone. Her triumphs and determination was far-reaching, life changing and changed all of our lives and opportunities for healthier, happier and hope filled lives. Bless her memory and heart, of care and love. Judy Neumann, ‘The Mother of Disability Rights’, did an ever-changing world of good works, for all of us; in America and worldwide. She refused to be told what she could do or what she could be.

  10. Jeff K.

    I met Judy in the late 1970s when she was working with the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley CA. She was clearly the heart and sole of the organization and was instrumental in its success in effectively advocating for all disabled people.

    • Liz B.

      Wow. Whenever I hear from someone who met Judy, I feel like they were so lucky. I wish I’d had the opportunity.


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