On Saturday, March 4, the world lost one of its most celebrated disability rights activists. Judy Heumann passed away at the age of 75 in Washington D.C. The cause of her death has not been made public.
Heumann was born in Philadelphia to Ilse and Werner Heumann in 1947. She was raised in Brooklyn, N.Y. When she was 2 years old, Heumann was stricken with polio and spent three months in an iron lung (a negative pressure ventilator that stimulates breathing). Though doctors advised her parents to institutionalize young Heumann, they refused to do so. Instead, they became strong advocates for their daughter.
When Heumann was ready for kindergarten, her public school principal refused to let her enroll, telling her parents that she was “a fire hazard” because Heumann used a wheelchair. It was not until Heumann was 9 that she was finally permitted to attend public school, but she and other disabled class members were relegated to a basement classroom and segregated from other students.
Despite these setbacks, Heumann completed high school, college and earned a master’s degree in public health.
In 1970, Heumann applied for a teaching job but was not employed due to her mobility challenges. Heumann sued the city and alerted the media to her plight. Within months, Heumann was hired, becoming the first teacher in the New York City Public Schools to use a wheelchair.
After this victory, Heumann continued to fight for the rights of people with disabilities. She led a Manhattan protest against President Richard Nixon’s veto of the 1972 Rehabilitation Act as well as a 26-day sit-in in a federal building in San Francisco that succeeded in getting Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act enforced.
Heumann was one of the founders of the Berkley Center for Independent Living, the Independent Living Movement, and the World Institute on Disability. She served on the boards of many disability organizations and in 1993, she became the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services in the Clinton Administration. In 2010, Heumann served as the first Special Advisor for International Disability Rights in President Barak Obama’s State Department. Later, she was named Washington, D.C.’s first Director for the Department on Disability Services.
Heumann became well-known outside of the disability community in 2020 after the release of “Crip Camp” an award-winning documentary about Camp Jened, a summer camp for teens with disabilities that operated from the 1950s through the 1970s. Heumann was a camper at Camp Jened, and the film traces her path from outspoken camper to disability rights leader.
Also in 2020, Heumann published her memoir “Being Heumann: An Unrepentent Memoir of a Disability Activist.” “Rolling Warrior,” a version of the memoir geared toward young adults, was published the following year. Heumann hosted a podcast called “The Heumann Perspective” until the time of her death.
Heumann is survived by her husband Jorge Pineda, her brothers, Ricky (Julie) and Joseph (Mary), her niece Kristin, grandnephew Orion and many other family members and friends.