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Judith “Judy” Heumann (1947-2023)

“Some people say that what I did changed the world.” “But really, I simply refused to accept what I was told about who I could be. And I was willing to make a fuss about it.”

— Judith Heumann


Judith Heumann was a renowned American disability rights activist who helped secure legislation protecting the rights of people with disabilities. She was known as the "Mother of the Disability Rights Movement" and was recognized internationally as a leader in the disability community. She passed away at age 75 on March 4th, 2023.

Image Source: disabilityrightsmd.org/judith-heumann-and-crip-camp-a-disability-revolution


Heumann was a lifelong civil rights advocate for people with disabilities. She worked for global disability rights through the US State Department and the Ford Foundation and became the World Bank’s first advisor on disability and development. Judith Heumann's legacy in the disability rights movement is a testament to her unwavering commitment to advocating for the rights of individuals with disabilities. Her contributions to the disability community have helped to reshape attitudes towards disability and inspire change on a global scale. Her work has impacted the lives of countless people, and her passing on March 4th, 2023, has left a profound void in the disability rights movement.


Heumann's journey toward becoming a leading disability rights activist began at an early age. She was born with polio in 1947, which caused her to use a wheelchair for mobility. Growing up, she experienced discrimination and exclusion due to her disability. She was barred from attending public schools because of her wheelchair, and her parents had to fight for her right to an education. These early experiences of discrimination instilled in Heumann a deep passion for social justice and a desire to fight for the rights of people with disabilities. In her teen years, she worked as a counselor at Camp Jened in the Catskills—a camp for children with disabilities with a philosophy emphasizing capacity, individuality, listening, and open-mindedness.


Heumann's first significant accomplishment in the disability rights movement came in 1970 when she sued the New York City Board of Education for the right to teach in a public school. The board had denied her application for a teaching job solely because of her disability. Heumann's lawsuit resulted in a landmark ruling that declared that people with disabilities had the right to work in the public sector. This ruling paved the way for other persons with disabilities to pursue careers in the public sector.


Her advocacy work continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s when she became a leading figure in the disability rights movement. She co-founded the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, California, providing services for persons with disabilities, including housing, transportation, and employment support. Heumann also played a vital role in the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibited discrimination against people with disabilities in programs and activities that received federal funding.

Image by Neha Balachandran


In 1993, she was appointed by President Bill Clinton as the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, making her the first person with a disability to hold the position. During her tenure, she worked to expand educational opportunities for persons with disabilities and promote inclusive workforce hiring practices.


In 2010, Heumann was appointed as the Special Advisor for International Disability Rights at the U.S. Department of State during President Obama’s administration, where she worked to promote disability rights worldwide. In this role, she helped to negotiate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which the United Nations General Assembly adopted in 2006. Heumann also served as the World Bank's first advisor on disability and development, where she worked to ensure that the bank's policies and programs were inclusive of individuals with disabilities.


Throughout her career, Heumann was recognized internationally as a leader in the disability rights movement. In 2015, she was awarded the Henry Viscardi Achievement Award for her contributions to the disability community. She was also the subject of a documentary film titled "Crip Camp," which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020.


The passing of Judith Heumann is a tremendous loss to the disability rights movement. Saamarthya Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting equality and inclusion, recognizes and honors her immeasurable impact in advocating for disability rights and accessibility. We express our deepest gratitude and admiration for her contributions and pledge to continue supporting her efforts toward creating a more inclusive and equitable world for all.

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