Spotlight on Heroes: Judy Heumann

Picture of Judy Heumann from the shoulders up, in a brightly colored flowered shirt, brown hair showing some gray, and brown-rimmed eyeglasses. She is smiling with happiness and triumph.

McGuinness Law Group agrees with the saying, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” We stan many disability rights advocates who have changed the world. This is one entry in our series highlighting those heroes.

Judy Heumann became well known to many people after the documentary “Crip Camp” was broadcast on Netflix. But they may not know she participated in most of the enormous successes of the disability community for decades. She was a born fighter who used persuasion, humor, bridge-building, and theatre to achieve her goals.

As a result of contracting polio as a toddler, Judy used a wheelchair. She encountered discrimination early and often. At age five, she was barred from attending public school because her wheelchair was considered a “fire hazard.” She persevered, graduated from college, and passed the teaching credential test for the state of New York but was denied her teaching license because she could not walk. She sued, and the board of education relented. She became the first wheelchair user to teach in the state of New York.

Judy didn’t stop there: She was a leader in the famous “504 sit-in” in 1974 that successfully pressured the federal government to issue anti-discrimination regulations applicable to businesses and entities that receive federal financial assistance. 150 disabled people, along with their nondisabled allies — ASL interpreters, personal care attendants, and parents of children with disabilities — occupied a federal building in San Francisco for 26 days. It was an extraordinary feat, its success based in large part on the work Judy and others did to build relationships with civil rights organizations, including organized labor and the Black Panthers. It was a racially diverse operation, led by women.

Judy always thought big. She went on to found the Berkeley Center for Independent Living, which helped to launch the Independent Living Movement nationally and globally. She served as the World Bank's first Adviser on Disability and Development. She served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations as Assistant Secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services in the Department of Education and as a Special Advisor for International Disability Rights at the U.S. Department of State. Judy played an instrumental role in the development and implementation of legislation including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Judy knew that a small group of committed citizens could change the world, and she knew that it starts with the individual. She said, “I wanna see a feisty group of disabled people around the world... if you don't respect yourself and if you don't demand what you believe in for yourself, you're not gonna get it.” Judy died a year ago this month, but her work inspires us to keep doing ours unapologetically and with pride.

Judy was a funny and warm person. You can see her on Trevor Noah (Video), in Crip Camp (Netflix), and in her Ted Talk (Video). She was even featured in Comedy Central’s Drunk History! (Video)

For more on the 504 Sit-In, check out the Wikipedia page.