Being Heumann: Judith Heumann, a disability rights activist and pioneer in the disability rights movement

Written by: Beth Hudson

How appropriate that one of the most well-known disabilities’ rights activists has this last name. Judith Heumann was at the forefront of rights for all people with disabilities for most of her adult life. She grew up as a wheelchair user in a time when people with disabilities were considered third-class citizens. She fought for equality in education, jobs, travel, and access. In a nutshell, inclusion and representation. If not for her and others who took up the cause with her, we would not have the access we do now. We still have boundaries to break down, but she paved the way. She recently passed away, but I’m sure others will continue the cause. If you want to help, check out the advocacy information at the Amputation Coalition.

I recently read her book. It’s a very powerful book and a short read. Instead of listing all the advocacy she did, Judith picks just a few of the experiences that shaped her life from a child denied public school to a sit-in at a federal building. If you read nothing else, skip to the very last chapter. It gave me chills, and not in a good way.  She doesn’t pull any punches; she is adept in letting us in to see life from her point of view, physically, emotionally, mentally, and politically. 

Here are a few excerpts to wet your whistle:

“I was eight when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the whites-only section of the bus and just starting college when the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964. Wasn’t it the government’s responsibility to ensure that everyone could participate equally in our society?” (Heumann, Judith, Beacon Press, 2020, p. 42) 

“When other people see you as a third-class citizen, the first thing you need is a belief in yourself and the knowledge that you have rights. The next thing you need is a group of friends to fight back with.” (Ibid, p. 64)

“In some countries, housing authorities received money to work with people to modify their houses or apartments and make them accessible, whether they rented or owned.” (Ibid, p. 158)

Heumann organized and led advocacy groups from grass roots to the federal level, ultimately working under several different presidents to not only pass the ADA, but also to make sure the government didn’t just consider it lip service. She, along with many other advocates, held the government’s feet to the fire to make sure the ADA regulations were not just suggestions. She opened many doors for those of us who are now disabled. We enjoy the access the ADA has provided and expect to be included and represented. 

We have all seen that look in people, “Oh, you are missing a limb (or in a wheelchair, or any kind of disability), so you must not have a brain and must not be able to think, either.”  Judy’s work towards inclusion and representation has helped to styme this attitude. When I was in school, disabled students were never in school. Luckily, this has changed due to Title 504. Our education system is still figuring out how to include all students, and there are many educators tirelessly working on implementation. We have a long way to go in that area as well. 

Judy, always curious about her world, traveled internationally to find out how other countries treat their disabled citizens, an eye-opening chapter in her life. Some countries are far ahead of us, and some are still in the very dark ages. She added much knowledge to her toolbox. She taught advocacy skills to community members who were just beginning to have a voice for disabled communities who were “thrown away” by their governments. 

Judith’s life was not all about advocacy. Summer camp revived her soul. I highly recommend the documentary “Crip Camp” which highlights her camp experience. As an adult, she married and had a full life outside of her job. The disability community lost this incredible person on March 4th, 2023. She was 75 years young. 

And it should not be lost on us that her last name is pronounced “human.” We are all part of the race and should be treated as such. Read the book, and thank you, Judy, for all you have done for us. The work continues…

And remember: You never know how much strength you have until you are called upon to use it.