A debt of gratitude to disability rights champion Judy Heumann

Paying tribute to one of the world's greatest advocates for equity and rights

Ed Tobias avatar

by Ed Tobias |

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You may not have heard of Judy Heumann, who died March 4 at the age of 75. Although she’s not directly connected to the multiple sclerosis (MS) community, you should know about her. Everyone who lives with a disability owes her a great deal.

At just 18 months old, Heumann became ill in 1949 during the polio epidemic. According to her website, doctors told her parents, Werner and Ilse Heumann, that little Judy would never be able to walk, so they should place her in an institution. It was the way things were done back then. But her parents refused.

Later, a school principal tried to block her from entering kindergarten, calling her a “fire hazard.” Her parents fought that, too, although according to The New York Times, she wasn’t able to properly enroll in school until she was 9, and “even then she took her classes with other disabled students in the basement.” 

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Nothing would stop her

Eventually, Heumann earned a bachelor’s degree from Long Island University and a master’s in public health from the University of California, Berkeley. She also sued New York City to become the first teacher there to use a wheelchair. Again and again, she fought and won.

I think the biggest Judy Heumann story centers on a place called Camp Jened, a summer camp in New York’s Catskill Mountains for people with disabilities that operated from the 1950s to the ’70s. There, campers discovered what they could do and confronted what they couldn’t; for example, conquering a step at the entrance to an ice cream store, or overcoming the attitudes inside the store that were as cold as the ice cream.

The disabled campers weren’t welcome inside, they were told, because they made customers feel uncomfortable. But, as shown in the 2020 Netflix documentary “Crip Camp,” at camp, they weren’t labeled as “different.” They were simply people with unique needs. Heumann was a camper, and then a counselor, at Crip Camp.

The disability rights movement is born

The campers didn’t forget those feelings or the connections they made with one another after their camp days ended. Several reconnected later and planted the seeds that grew into the disability rights movement.

In 1977, Heumann led more than 100 protesters during a sit-in at a federal building in San Francisco, part of a broader nationwide disability rights protest. She later testified at a congressional hearing, stating, “We will no longer allow the government to oppress disabled individuals.”

She was referring to the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, the first piece of legislation in the U.S. to address equal access for people with disabilities. However, four years after it was signed into law, it still hadn’t been enforced, which prompted the protests. At one point during the hearing, Heumann told a representative of President Jimmy Carter’s secretary of health, education, and welfare, “I would appreciate it if you would stop shaking your head in agreement when I don’t think you understand what we are talking about.”

Government officials soon came to understand. The Rehabilitation Act was eventually enforced, particularly Section 504, which prohibits discrimination based on disability by any institution that receives federal funds. That paved the way for the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which Heumann fought for, too. 

Over the years, Heumann became one of the early staff members of the Berkeley Center for Independent Living, part of the broader Independent Living Movement, and she helped found the World Institute on Disability. She served as the first adviser on disability and development at the World Bank, as assistant secretary of the office of special education and rehabilitation services in the administration of President Bill Clinton, and as the first special adviser for international disability rights at the State Department during the administration of President Barack Obama.

Are we there yet?

All of that’s pretty good for a woman who once, as a child, risked being institutionalized because of her disability. But in a September 2021 interview with fellow BioNews columnist Kevin Schaefer, who writes for SMA News Today and hosts the SMA News Today podcast, Heumann noted that, when it comes to disability rights, “we’re not there yet.”

“We need to continue to educate people about how disability is a normal, valuable part of human life,” she said.

Heumann also mentioned that a movie about her life might be in the works. To me, that would be the perfect tribute to a woman whose name deserves to be known by everyone. 

Note: Multiple Sclerosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Multiple Sclerosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to multiple sclerosis.


Alison McLachlan avatar

Alison McLachlan

Thank you letting me know this amazing woman - without her work...where would we be??

Ed Tobias avatar

Ed Tobias

Hi Alison,

I think we both know where we'd be. She was quite amazing and I only learned about her a couple of years ago. More people need to learn about her.




thank you for such a great article about someone that fought and won for all of us with a disability ....wonderful ....thank you again...

Ed Tobias avatar

Ed Tobias

Hi Madeline,

Thanks for your thanks, but it's Judy, who I never had the chance to meet, who deserves those thanks. She's really the one who wrote the column.



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