In honor of International Women’s Day, we would like to highlight the amazing life and legacy of Judy Heaumann who recently passed away on March 4th.
Judy Heumann was an activist who dedicated her life to advocating for the rights of people with disabilities. She was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1947 with polio, which left her paralyzed from the neck down. Despite collegiate barriers, Heumann excelled academically and earned a Bachelor’s degree in Education from Long Island University and a Master’s degree in Public Health from the University of California, Berkeley.
In 1972, Heumann and a small group of DIA demonstrators shut down rush hour traffic on Madison Avenue outside President Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign headquarters. They wanted to call attention to Nixon’s veto of the Rehabilitation Act of 1972, which expanded programs to help people with disabilities.
In the 1977, she helped organize the 504 Sit-in, a 28-day protest at the San Francisco federal building where people with disabilities demanded that the government implement Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibited discrimination based on disability in any program or activity receiving federal funding. The sit-in was successful, and Section 504 was eventually enforced, opening doors for people with disabilities to access education and employment opportunities.
Her action led to her being named Time magazine’s Woman of The Year in 1977.
“Disability only becomes a tragedy when society fails to provide the things we need to lead our lives — job opportunities or barrier-free buildings, for example,” she said. “It is not a tragedy to me that I’m living in a wheelchair.”
Heumann was an optimist about the future. Always sunny and quick to smile but she was also quick to call out discrimination wherever she saw it.
Heumann went on to serve in several government roles, including as the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services under
President Bill Clinton. She also served as the Special Advisor for International Disability Rights at the US Department of State, where she worked to promote disability rights around the world.
Throughout her career, Heumann became a hero for all of us. Her work has paved the way for greater accessibility and opportunities for people with disabilities, women, and the betterment of society as a whole. She became influential and was frequently sought her advice about closing down abusive orphanages for disabled children and about how to win equal rights for women with disabilities.
“We are slowly changing the world,” Judy once said. You did change it, Judy. We are grateful for the impact she made on the world and hope you will take a moment on a day like this to honor all of the women who have shaped the course of history.