A love letter to Judy Heumann
Written by: Nicole Chedraoui
“Our anger was a fury sparked by profound injustices. Wrongs that deserved ire. And with that rage, we ripped a hole in the status quo.”
― Judith Heumann, Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist
Thank you for showing me it’s okay to be angry.
When I first heard someone utter the word disabled towards me, it was as if the gust of tragedy that filled the air was palpable. It was a strong woman by the name of Judy Heumann who taught me that a disability is not a tragedy. Tragedy is merely the consequence of how society treats the disabled.
On March 4th of 2023, Judy Heumann took her last breath and the world became a little darker.
Judy was not just a light, she was a fiery beacon in a sea of gray.
Judy taught me how to not only live in the gray sea of adversity, but to dance in her light and strength; she taught me how to celebrate even my most sorrowful days, and how to emerge triumphant in the face of despondency.
Judy Heumann is my hero, and she’ll never even know it.
When Judy passed that dreary Saturday night, a painful realization struck my gut. So many people don’t even know who Judy Heumann is. They don’t know her smile or determination, her story or her impact. Judy Heumann left earth, and I felt as if I was the only one my age drowning in her wake. I’ll never get the opportunity to thank Judy Heumann in this lifetime, but I do have the opportunity and the platform to tell her story.
So today I’m going to tell you the story of a woman who changed the world.
In 1947, Judy was born into the loving home of parents Ilse and Werner Heumann in chilly Brooklyn, New York. It was only 2 years later in 1949 when Judy would be told that she contracted Polio, a disease that would leave her wheel-chair bound for the rest of her life. Upon diagnosis, Ilse and Werner were promptly informed that institutionalization was the only route that could be taken in order to ensure stability for Judy’s future.
At the age of 2, society had already engraved in stone that Judy’s disability made her nothing but a social and economic burden.
In fact, this would be made abundantly clear 3 years later. At just the age of 5, Judy was deemed a “fire hazard” to the public school system. The principal wasted no time in firmly blocking Judy’s entry into her district-designated elementary school upon her seated-arrival. In the face of state liability, nobody seemed to care about young Judy’s right to education.
This moment was when Judy’s fire began.
It wasn’t until the age of 9 that Judy would be able to properly enroll in educational courses. Even then, she was forced to take her classes in a dusty basement, locked away with other students that had disabilities just like her. The group of children in the basement were only permitted to mix with the upstairs students once a week at their school assemblies, and it’s safe to say the “special high school” she would later attend did not provide any showstopping accommodations for her either. Despite this, she excelled in the face of hardship; in 1969, she graduated with flying colors from Long Island University with a bachelor’s degree in Speech and Theater. Six years later, she’d even go on to receive her master’s degree in Public Health from the University of California, Berkeley.
Her prominence as an activist first came to the forefront in 1970 when Judy was refused a teaching job at a school due to her disability. It appeared that Judy passed every board certified exam to teach in the state of New York, except for a physical. In light of her inability to complete the physical, Judy was denied her dream job as an educator with the cited cause being, “paralysis of both lower extremities.” The argument the state held was that Heumann could essentially not escort students out of the building in cases of extreme emergency, entirely because she was unable to use the stairs.
Yet, Judy Heumann refused to be silenced.
It wasn’t long before Judy sued the school and went public, telling The New York Times that if a school lacked a ramp or elevator, the least they could do was let her teach on the ground floor; she even added the fact that she could move faster than other average pedestrians on her electric mobility aid. The Times journalism team actively backed her claims, and it wasn’t long before the editorial made it to the local mayor, John Lindsay. It’s safe to say once the public court of opinion was heard, Judy received her teaching job in no time.
Judy would go on to be New York City’s first teacher in a wheelchair. That was the first time she made history.
A Superhero To The Disabled
Judy once said, “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.”
It’s safe to say she spent the rest of her life fighting. It was Judy that helped lead the mass protest that would entirely shut down traffic in Manhattan after Nixon’s Veto of the 1972 Rehabilitation act. In fact, she would go on to launch a 26-day sit-in at a federal building in San Francisco to get Section 504 of the revived Rehabilitation Act enforced, a tactic that proved successful with its sequential passing. This nearly month-long sit-in was described as, “the longest nonviolent occupation of a federal building in American history.” Most of the protesters who attended didn’t even possess essential supplies, such as a change of clothes, and the government was fittingly no help when the power lines and water supply were cut off. The passage of this act would “forbid organizations and employers from excluding or denying individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to receive program benefits and services,” and this principle is still withheld today in schools and the workforce alike. Judy described with pride how instrumental this decision was, “It was a very important provision because it would mean, for example, that you could not discriminate against someone with a disability in preschool, in elementary school, in high school, at universities, in hospitals, in government,” Ms. Heumann told the BBC in 2020. “And if in fact discrimination occurred, you would have a remedy. You could go to court. You could file a complaint.”
This passage was groundbreaking for the disabled community, but Judy wouldn’t just stop there. It wasn’t soon after Judy was pioneering the “Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, (IDEA)” which would ensure that all students with a disability are provided free, appropriate public education that is tailored to the individual’s needs. During this time, Judy ensured disabled people around the country would be provided as equal a chance at success as the able-bodied.
After that, the rest was history. Judy reigned in her power to create, form, run, and organize a plethora of organizations concerned with the rights for those with disabilities–most notably an organization called The Center for Independent Living. This Berkley-formed group would go on to be called the first organization in the world to be “run for and by the disabled.” It wasn’t soon after that she landed her first gig working for the government in the mid-1970’s as an employee for the Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare.
However, discrimination against the disabled surfaced again in the late 1980’s, so Judy pioneered another huge milestone that needed to be passed: the Americans with Disabilities Act (or the ADA). Judy concluded we needed legislation that accounted for discrimination of the disabled in several areas, some of which included transportation, employment, public accommodations, communications, and access to state and local government’s programs and services. Judy put tremendous pressure on the House of Representatives to pass this act, and by a unanimous voice vote of 76-6, the act was passed. Judy helped change the minds of millions, including President Bush at the time, who stated, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”
It was soon after this act’s passing that she started to actualize her heart’s desire to move toward special education and rehabilitation improvements for younger kids. Because of her heartfelt platform, incredible resume, and plethora of experience, Judy was invited to work alongside the Clinton administration to further launch her passion for educational accessibility and aid. So from 2002-2006, Judy served as the first advisor on Disability and Development at the World Bank.
It wasn’t long before Judy felt the need to broaden her scope; after all, discrimination against the disabled was not just a country wide affair, it was a global health crisis. She’d go on to make history again in December of 2006 when she developed and implemented the “UN Convention on The Rights Of Persons With Disabilities” which was an international human rights treaty adopted by the United Nations to “promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.”
Judy Huemann created and uplifted a global empire for the disabled.
Amazed by her global efforts, the late great president Barack Obama was quick to appoint her as an advisor during the Obama administration from 2010-2017, naming the FIRST Special Advisor for International Disability Rights at the U.S State Department. She would later be the trailblazer for Washington D.C’s first Director for the Department of Disability Services, changing lives for the better each and every day.
The Essence of Judy Huemann
In the face of her humanitarian efforts and political impact, at her core, Judy will never be just some “politician.”
Judy was a wife, a sister, and an aunt.
A lover of musicals, a lover of life.
She lived and breathed music, culture, joy, and everything the world had to offer her.
Judy looked tribulation in the face and laughed at its efforts to break her spirit.
Judy Heumann traveled the world and in her wake she changed it forever.
You were unbreakable.
You possessed the power and resistance to turn the earth on its axis, and you did.
Thank you for being here when I really needed you, even if you didn’t know me.
Thank you for enduring the fight for me.
For everyone like me.
“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.”