Reflecting on the Life and Legacy of Disability Rights Trailblazer Judy Heumann

By: Menachem Rephun, Creative Spirit Communication Manager

We’re very saddened to share that Judy Heumann, the renowned disability rights activist who co-organized the historic “504 Sit-In” in 1977 and helped pave the way for the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and the Rehabilitation Act, has passed away at 75. Judy, who utilized a wheelchair for most of her life after contracting polio at 18 months old, became a leader of the disability rights movement through her organizational talent and by emphasizing the dignity and humanity of people with disabilities, driving home the point that societal exclusion was the problem, and that Americans with disabilities would no longer tolerate being treated as second or third-class citizens.

Judy experienced anti-disabilities discrimination at an early age, when she was turned away from kindergarten at a local public school due to the principal deeming her wheelchair “a fire hazard”. After graduating college and pursuing a career as a speech therapist, she once again encountered discrimination when New York City’s Board of Education denied her teaching license, on the grounds that a teacher in a wheelchair would be unable to evacuate children in an emergency. Rather than being discouraged, Judy co-founded Disabled in Action, a protest group modeled on the Black civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and anti-Vietnam war protests. “We’re not going to let a hypocritical society give us a token education and then bury us,” she declared.

Though she was often an unsung hero, Judy gained added recognition in 2020 with the publication of her memoir Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist, and was also featured in the documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution. In her own words (as remembered by NPR reporter Joseph Shapiro) “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. It is not a tragedy to me that I’m living in a wheelchair.” This is a sentiment many now take for granted, but in 1987, it was a radical and revolutionary view.

Judy’s life and legacy continue to be a guiding force and an inspiration for us at Creative Spirit. Our work pushing back against discrimination and transforming employment for jobseekers with disabilities would not be possible without the hard-fought efforts of leaders like Judy Heumann and others in the disability rights movement. Click here to watch historic footage of the 504 Sit In and Judy’s powerful testimony on behalf of Americans with disabilities:    

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