In Special Needs

Shadow cast by empty wheelchair on stairs.On March 4, 2023, the disability community lost a longtime leader and hero, Judy Heumann, who died of a heart attack at the age of 75.

Heumann, a disability civil rights activist, author, speaker, and administrator in two presidential administrations, served during her lifetime as a driving force behind such landmark disability rights legislation as the Rehabilitation Act and the American Disabilities Act, and as a vocal proponent of equity in such as areas as special education, independent living, and digital accessibility.

Heumann became a wheelchair user after having contracted polio as a child and becoming unable to walk. After graduating college, she sought to enter a career in teaching, but was initially denied the opportunity to obtain her teaching license due to her mobility impairment. After a legal battle in New York in which she sued the Board of Education and won, she became the state’s first teacher who used a wheelchair.

Heumann went on to dedicate her life to promoting civil rights for people with disabilities. Instrumental in the passage of disability rights legislation and a standout voice for the disability community, she organized major peaceful demonstrations starting in the 1970s that helped push disability rights issues into national headlines.

For instance, as featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution,” Heumann is highlighted among the leaders of a sit-in at the office of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare in San Francisco in 1977 – a nearly monthlong, continuous protest that brought widespread visibility to the disability civil rights movement. It was the longest-ever sit-in at a federal building and led to the signing of historic regulations fundamental to the future of federal civil rights protection.

Because the country was so inaccessible, disabled people had a hard time getting out and doing things – which made us invisible,” Heumann wrote in her 2020 memoir, “Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist.”

“So we were easy to discount and ignore. Until institutions were forced to accommodate us we would remain locked out and invisible – and as long as we were locked out and invisible, no one would see our true force and would dismiss us.”

During the administration of President Bill Clinton, Heumann was named assistant secretary of the U.S. Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services. Under President Barack Obama, Heumann served as the first-ever Special Advisor on International Disability Rights. She also became an advisor on disability rights for the World Bank.

In addition, Heumann co-founded the Berkeley Center for Independent Living, the World Institute on Disability, and the disability civil rights organization Disabled in Action.

Read more in a news release regarding her passing from JudithHeumann.com.

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