Why People Should Know Judy Heumann

by Emily Kranking

On March 4, the disability world lost a staple in Judy Heumann. However, Judy and her legacy have gotten little attention from the public; even right now when the world should be celebrating her. If you’re among those who don’t know about this amazing woman, we put a list of accomplishments together, so you can catch up on the “Mother of Disability Rights.”

  1.     Judy was the first disabled person to have a federal case.

 Judy first wheeled into the spotlight in the early 1970’s as a recent college graduate and a hopeful teacher. The New York City Board of Education refused to give her a teaching license as her wheelchair was a “fire hazard.” Throughout her life, Judy never took a “No” as an answer. Judy immediately sued the Board and took the case to federal court (Heumann v. Board of Education of the City of NY). Already knowing how to put policy to good use, Judy referred to the Civil Rights Act 1964 and cited that she couldn’t be hired because of her disability. The case gathered national attention and the majority of the public sided with her. Judy won the case, being the first teacher with a wheelchair in New York.

  1.     Judy was of the founders of the Disability Right movement

 In 1972, President Richard Nixon vetoed Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the first bill that promised civil rights to disabled Americans. Judy was furious about this and led eighty other activists in the sit-in on Madison Avenue, stopping traffic in New York City. Section 504 found its way again in 1977 and the fate was squared up to Joseph Califano, the U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. When he refused to sign it, Judy set up nation-wide protests across different HEW offices. Judy and the largest set of activists stayed in the San Francisco office, which was the longest by 26 days. Thanks to her amazing leadership and after numerous meetings with Califano and other politicians, Section 504 was finally signed. Disabled Americans finally were no longer allowed to deny services in the public. Ramps and elevators were required in all public buildings. Disability discrimination in a workplace environment then became illegal. This was all thanks to Judy’s self-proclaimed fussiness and her natural gift of leadership. You can learn more about the Section 504 movement and hear her famous speech to Califano at the 11:08 mark here.

  1.     Judy assisted in the development of other policies.

 Section 504 was not the only policy she had her hand in. While being a legislative assistant for the U.S. Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, Judy developed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (or IDEA for short), officially opening schools for disabled students everywhere. Of course, Judy was one of the main voices for the Americans with Disabilities Act (securing all rights and freedoms to disabled Americans) and was one of the pro-lobbyists for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (which promises to the United Nations that the United States will never be discriminatory to disabled people).

  1.     Yes, she’s one of the stars of Netflix’s “Crip Camp.”

Thankfully, Judy garnered lots of recognition in her last couple of years. With President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama as the executive producers (Just casual, no big deal), fellow disabled activists Nicole Newnham, Jim Lebrecht, and Sara Bolder made a documentary on life before and during the Section 504 movement. “Crip Camp” highlights disability culture at Camp Jened (or as they joked, “Disabled Woodstock”) and how Camp Jened shaped the activists that we know and love today, including our girl. Judy was even a camp counselor and orchestrated many of the camp activists, already being the girl boss that we loved so much. Netflix immediately fell in love with Crip Camp and bought it. Crip Camp opened Sundance and was nominated for Best Documentary at the Oscars. Judy, Nicole, Jim, and Sara even wheeled the red carpet and served iconic looks that we, here at No Limbits, wished that we designed.

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