Judy Heumann

Many People Prefer Death to Disability

Judith E. "Judy" Heumann (born 1947)

is an American disability rights activist. An internationally recognized leader in the disability community, Heumann is a lifelong civil rights advocate for people with disabilities. Her work with governments and non governmental organizations (NGOs) has produced significant contributions since the 1970s to the development of human rights legislation and policies benefiting children and adults with disabilities. Through her work in the World Bank and the State Department, Heumann led the mainstreaming of disability rights into international development. Her contributions extended the international reach of the independent living movement.




Heumann's commitment to disability rights stems from her personal experiences. She had polio at the age of 18 months, and has used a wheelchair most of her life. Heumann had to fight repeatedly to be included in the educational system. The local public school refused to allow her to attend, calling her a fire hazard. Heumann's mother, a community activist in her own right, challenged the decision, and Judy was allowed to go to school in the fourth grade. Judy Heumann began taking major steps toward rights for people with disabilities in college, organizing rallies and protests with other students with disabilities. When she got out of school and was denied her New York teaching license because the board did not believe she could get herself or her students out of the building in case of a fire, she took the case to court. After the judge recommended that New York City’s Board of Educationrethink its decision, Heumann became the first person in a wheelchair to teach in New York City and taught elementary school there for three years.

In 1970 Heumann and several friends with disabilities founded Disabled in Action, an organization that focused on securing the protection of people with disabilities under civil rights laws. While serving as a legislative assistant to the chairperson of the U.S. Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, in 1974 she helped develop legislation that became the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. An early leader in the Independent Living Movement, she then moved to Berkeley where she served as deputy director of the Center for Independent Living. She also organized the sit-ins at the U.S. Department of Health Education, and Welfare offices in San Francisco and around the U.S. which resulted in HEW Secretary Joseph Califano signing the Rehabilitation Act's Section 504 regulations. She co-founded the World Institute on Disability with Ed Roberts and Joan Leon in 1983, serving as co-director until 1993.

Heumann served in the Clinton Administration as Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services at the US Department of Education from 1993 to 2001. From 2002 to 2006 she served as the World Bank Group's first Advisor on Disability and Development, leading the World Bank's work on disability and worked to expand the Bank’s knowledge and capability to work with governments and civil society on including disability in the Bank discussions with client countries, its country-based analytical work, and support for improving policies, programs, and projects that allow disabled people around the world to live and work in the economic and social mainstream of their communities. She was Lead Consultant to the Global Partnership for Disability and Development. She was the Director of the Department of Disability Services for the District of Columbia, but in 2010 became the Special Advisor on Disability Rights for the US State Department under President Barack Obama.

In 2014 the Berkeley Rotary Club gave its annual Rotary Peace Grove Award to Heumann and to the late Ed Roberts, another disability rights activist. 

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