“Disability only becomes a tragedy for me when society fails to provide the things we need to lead our lives—job opportunities or barrier-free buildings, for example. It is not a tragedy to me that I’m living in a wheelchair.”
Judith Heumann is one of the pioneers of disability rights and an internationally recognized leader in the disability community, being one of the world’s leading voices focusing on the rights and independence of people with disabilities. Her lobbying activity with governments and NGOs has significantly impacted the development of human rights legislation and policies benefiting children and adults with disabilities. Also, thanks to her work in the World Bank and the U.S. State Department, Heumann was able to lead the mainstreaming of disability rights into international development.
Judith’s commitment to disability rights stems from her personal experiences. She contracted polio in 1949, at the age of 18 months, and began to experience discrimination at five years old when she was denied the right to attend school because she was a “fire hazard”. Heumann, with the help of her community activist mother, fought for her right to an education and was eventually admitted to school starting from fourth grade. Her struggles were only starting though: after Heumann graduated, she was denied her New York teaching license because the school board did not believe she could get herself or her students out of the building in case of a fire. She took the case to court and won, thus becoming the first person in a wheelchair to teach in New York City.
As a consequence, Heumann determined that she had to play an increasing advocacy role, as she and other disabled people were experiencing continuous discrimination because of their disabilities. She began a full-fledged fight for equality, organizing demonstrations and founding Disabled in Action, an organization aiming at ensuring the protection of disabled people’s civil rights. In addition, she served as legislative assistant to the chairperson of the U.S. Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, and in 1974 contributed to the development of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
As an early leader in the Independent Living Movement, she served as deputy director of the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, California. In that capacity, she organized a month-long sit-in at the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare offices in San Francisco, that led to the signing of the Rehabilitation Act’s Section 504 regulations, establishing that no program receiving funds from the federal government could deny access, services, or employment to someone solely on the basis of their disability. This was one of the first U.S. federal civil rights laws offering protection for people with disabilities.
In 1983, Heumann co-founded the World Institute on Disability with Ed Roberts and Joan Leon, thus extending the international reach of the independent living movement. From 1993 to 2001, she served in the Clinton Administration as Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services at the US Department of Education. Her responsibilities included the creation of legislation at the national level for special education, disability research, vocational rehabilitation and independent living, serving more than 8 million youth and adults with disabilities. After that, she worked as the World Bank’s first Advisor on Disability and Development. In this position, she expanded the Bank’s knowledge and capability to work with governments and civil society on including disability in the global agenda, therefore contributing to the mainstreaming of disability rights into international development.
President Obama appointed Heumann as the first Special Advisor for International Disability Rights at the U.S. Department of State, where she served from 2010 to 2017. The Special Advisor role she occupied has not yet been filled under the Trump Administration. After a lifelong commitment to disability rights, Judith is now living in Washington, D.C. and is currently working to change the perception of the disabled people in the media, by advancing their inclusion and putting an end to their invisibility.
By Valentina Canepa, WAVE Intern