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Diversity Equality Inclusion - April 28, 2023

Judith Heumann & Disability Rights Activism

by Alexandra “Alex” Young

Judith (Judy) Heumann was an American disability rights activist. She was known as the “Mother of the Disability Rights Movement” and led the fight for disability rights in the United States. Judy grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. and contracted polio when she was two years old. Polio left her disabled, which made her use a wheelchair for the rest of her life.

At a young age, Judy quickly learned the world wasn’t made for her. She was turned away from the local school when she was five years old. The school called her wheelchair a “fire hazard.” Her parents defended her ability to attend, but this wasn’t the only time Judy experienced discrimination for her disability. Judy was also denied a teaching license due to her inability to walk during a physical assessment.

She successfully sued the New York City Board of Education and earned her teaching license. Judy’s case was the first disabled rights case brought to federal court, also making her the first disabled teacher in a wheelchair to ever teach in New York City. For Judy, this was the beginning of a lifelong devotion to disability rights and accessibility for the disabled community in the United States.

Judy attended and later became a counselor at Camp Jened, a summer camp and haven in New York for disabled individuals. Those who attended participated in an “average” camp experience without the fear of discrimination for their disability. Judy created a community at Camp Jened made of people with all different kinds of disabilities. Many of those people went on to help spearhead the disability rights movement.

Judy gained national recognition when she led a series of successful protests. These protests led to the implementation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Signed in 1973, the Rehabilitation Act was designed to outlaw discrimination against disabled people by any federally funded institution. This included schools, government buildings, hospitals, etc. However, by 1977, the law had yet to be enforced. Judy responded by leading one of the most notable protests of her career in San Francisco. For 25 days in April 1977, more than 150 disability rights activists with a variety of disabilities took over the fourth floor of a federal building for a sit-in. Many didn’t bring supplies and didn’t have access to water or food. Finally, after several congressional hearings in Washington, D.C., Judy demanded the implementation and signing of Section 504. The signing of Section 504 is responsible for the access to education many young disabled individuals and students enjoy today.

Judy, a woman who was initially denied the opportunity to her own education and to work as a teacher, gave students the right to an accessible education and future. This achievement laid the groundwork for the implementation of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), which was signed into law in 1990.

Judith Heumann died in Washington, D.C. on March 4, 2023. Her loss is mourned by many, while her legacy and life are remembered as trailblazing the fight towards accessibility in this country.

To learn more about Judy, check out “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” on Netflix or for free on YouTube. You can also read her memoir, “Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist.”

“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.”
 Judith Heumann, Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir
of a Disability Rights Activist

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Goodwin Living DEI Committee: Statement of Purpose: Educate, Embrace and Empower team members, residents, members* and all served by Goodwin Living to support Diversity, Equality and Inclusion.

Goodwin Living DEI Committee Desired Outcome: The Diversity, Equality and Inclusion Committee (DEI) will seek open and honest communication and collaboration that will inform and celebrate the age, culture, ethnicity and sexual orientation of team members, residents, members* and all served by Goodwin Living without bias.

Questions or comments? Please contact us DEI@GoodwinLiving.org.

*Members include Priority Club members and Goodwin Living at Home members.

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