By V. Valentino, Red Phoenix correspondent, California.
The founders of this country espoused the idea that every person had the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – although we understand clearly that this was meant only for a select few. Throughout the history of our nation, many prominent civil rights leaders such as Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X have endeavored to ensure that this ideal was not reserved for the elite few, but for every human being longing to have a piece of the American dream. One such person was Judith Heumann, who passed away last month at the age of 75. “Disability only becomes a tragedy when society fails to provide the things we need to lead our lives – job opportunities or barrier-free buildings, for example. It’s not a tragedy to me that I’m living in a wheelchair.” Her actions throughout her life were dedicated to proving this point not only for herself, but for every disabled person in the United States and beyond. This is what prompted her to be regarded as the “Mother of the Disability Rights Movement.”
Heumann contracted polio at the age of 18 months which led to her being a full-time wheelchair user for the remainder of her life. The local public school refused to allow her to attend on the basis that her inability to walk made her a fire hazard. Her education was relegated to home instruction twice a week for about an hour each session. Judy was eventually permitted to attend a special school and high school. Her efforts to get a suitable education culminated in her graduating from Long Island University and ultimately earning a Master’s in Public Health from the University of California at Berkeley.
Judy attended Camp Jened in the 1960s, a camp for persons with disabilities in the Catskill Mountains of New York. The 1970s saw her return to the camp as a counselor. Several campers would emerge to become the vanguard of the disability rights movement. Their stories were captured for posterity in the documentary Crip Camp, released in 2020. During those years in the 70s, Judy challenged the status quo and sued the New York Board of Education for refusing to give her a teaching license on the grounds that they feared that she could not evacuate herself or her students in case of a fire — the same argument that public schools had used to deny her attendance as a student all those years before. She would persevere and become the first teacher in the state to use a wheelchair. Judy rose to prominence in the disability rights movement after Richard Nixon’s veto of the 1972 Rehabilitation Act, which was the first piece of legislation to prohibit discrimination on the basis of disabilities, when she led a protest with other disabled people that shut down traffic in Manhattan. Shortly thereafter, she launched a 26-day sit-in at a federal building in San Francisco to see to it that Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act be dutifully revived and implemented. It was this relentless action by Judy Heumann and other disabled activists which pressured Joseph Califano, the US Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, to sign both the Education for All Handicapped Children Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act on April 28, 1977.
Not content to rest on her laurels, she assisted in founding the first Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, CA, and the World Institute on Disability. Her leadership skills would finally prompt her to move to Washington D.C. in 1993 to serve as the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services. She served in this position until 2001.
“Some people say that what I did changed the world. 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.”
As humble as her words may be, her efforts improved the lives of millions of people throughout the world. It is because of the persistence of Judy Heumann and other disabled activists that our government was forced to see just how capable persons with disabilities truly are. The disability rights movement grew out of the civil rights movement because disability rights are civil rights!
Judy Heumann deserves to be celebrated as a revolutionary. Her actions changed the level of involvement the government would have in the lives of disabled people thereby vastly improving their quality of life. The “wheelchair symbol” for disability and accessibility is now a familiar sight to people all across the world and serves as a hallmark for the movement that she and her cohorts saw through to victory. Disabled people now have the assurance that they will always be seen and heard lest those who deny them their basic rights are willing to suffer the legal ramifications. It is far from tragic when each of us does according to our ability and is accommodated according to our need. Rest in power, Judy!
Categories: History, U.S. News, United States History