Remembering Judy Heumann

Post written by Dina Abramson, SAFE Disability Services Project Advisory Council (PAC) Member

Judith Ellen (Judy) Heumann was born in 1947 to German Jewish parents. Her grandparents and great-grandparents died in the Holocaust.

Judy contracted polio when she was eighteen months old and used a wheelchair for most of her life. She was denied a public education in Brooklyn, New York, until she was in the fourth grade because she was a wheelchair user. Even then, she had to attend a “special” school for children with disabilities. This early bout with discrimination led to a lifetime of activism, advocacy, policymaking, and organization-building, both nationally and internationally. Because of Judy and others, people with disabilities make sure they are seen and heard. As her sister-in-law said at her memorial service, “When she achieved her goals, everyone benefitted.”

A non-exhaustive list of her accomplishments and accolades can be found here and a few of those accomplishments are highlighted below:

  • In 1970, Judith sued the Board of Education of the City of New York to become the first educator in New York City to use a wheelchair.
  • She was a key figure in the creation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
  • In the Obama administration, she served as the Special Advisor on International Disability Rights for the U.S. State Department from 2010 to 2017 – a position specifically created for her.
  • She wrote two books: Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist in 2020 and a year later its youth counterpart: Rolling Warrior: The Incredible, Sometimes Awkward, True Story of a Rebel Girl on Wheels Who Helped Spark a Revolution.
  • She starred in three documentaries: The Power of 504 (2008), Lives Worth Living (2011), and Crip Camp (2020).
  • She was awarded seven honorary doctorates during her lifetime.

If you need more evidence of Judy’s importance and influence, consider this information from her memorial service.

She was compared to Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Statements from President Joe & Dr Jill Biden and President Bill & Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were read. United States Senator Tammy Duckworth was a pallbearer. Overflow rooms at the Temple were needed to accommodate all who attended.

Some of the notable quotes from the memorial service include:

  • She was a giant.
  • She taught us never to settle.
  • She did not mold herself to fit the world.
  • She was a builder of community. Collaboration was her default.
  • Because Judy made a fuss, she made everyone’s life better – quote from Rachel Maddow
  • Judy turned her pain into purpose and her anger into action and sparked the flame of liberation in the hearts of disability rights advocates around the world, culminating in a Civil Rights Movement. – statement from the Bidens

As I watched the memorial service, a thought kept echoing in my mind, later voiced by one of the Rabbis. Judy’s service was a snapshot of the world she spent her life envisioning and working to create. During the hour plus service:

  • Two of the people who eulogized her were wheelchair users.
  • One person delivered his speech using a communication device.
  • A piano selection was performed by a young man with sensory disabilities.
  • Most, if not all of her pallbearers were people with disabilities.
  • The service and burial were available by livestream to people unable to attend in person.
  • The technology included closed captioning and ASL interpretation.
  • The bema (sanctuary stage) was equipped with a ramp.

Judy Heumann’s memorial service served as a shining example of accessibility, visibility, acceptance, and inclusivity. This was an event worthy of remembering and celebrating the woman hailed as the Mother of the Disability Rights Movement.

For we ARE leaders of inclusiveness and community, of love, equity, and justice. -Judy Heumann

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