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Honoring the life and legacy of Judy Heumann

On March 4, we lost a major champion for disability rights. Advocate, rabble-rouser and longtime disability rights hero Judy Heumann died at age 75.

Heumann had been fighting for her rights as a person with a disability since childhood. Polio resulted in her becoming paraplegic as a young child, and her parents had to fight the local schools to allow her attend when school officials decided that her use of a wheelchair was a fire hazard. Heumann finally started school at age 9, albeit in a segregated classroom.

But Heumann persevered, attending a special high school and then going on to complete both a bachelor’s and master’s degree. Yet when this highly qualified person applied to become a teacher in New York City, the school systems once again displayed their bias and denied her application solely based on her disability. Heumann fought back, suing the school district and publicizing her story in The New York Times. Eventually, she won her lawsuit and become New York City’s fist disabled teacher.

Heumann’s activism reached the national level in 1977. The passage of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act was supposed to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities in any setting that received federal funding. This included schools, universities, many hospitals and any governmental entity. At the time, it was the most aggressive legislation against anti-disability discrimination this nation had ever seen.

But it didn’t happen. The bureaucratic wheels ground to halt and then Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Joseph A. Califano Jr. delayed enacting the law while he overhauled the regulations. Disability activists across the country staged protests, and Heumann organized the San Francisco-area protest, which became the longest nonviolent occupation of a federal building in American history.

It took a Congressional Hearing, in which Heumann participated, to force Califano to finally enact the legislation. “We will no longer allow the government to oppress disabled individuals,” Heumann said during the hearing. “We want the law enforced.” Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act went on to become the basis of the more expansive Americans with Disabilities Act in 1991.

This solidified Heumann’s reputation as a force to reckon with. She advised and founded many organizations to support the rights of the disabled, including helping found the first Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, California. Starting in the 1990s, she took on positions that would allow her to advocate from within the very system she had been attacking for decades, including significant roles in both the Clinton and Obama administrations.

The legacy she leaves cannot be underestimated. Heumann is widely regarded as the “mother” of the disability rights movement. “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.”

You can learn more about this incredible woman and her influential life on her personal website judithheumann.com or her book, “Being Heumann.”

Tara Kiene is president/CEO of Community Connections Inc.