Sadly, this month we lost a great American Hero, Judy Heumann. From the time she was a girl, Judy knew what it was to advocate for herself and her future. Through her perseverance and determination, Judy fought to carve out a place in this society where she shared the same rights and sense of community as people without disabilities. Along the way, Judy would be instrumental in many fights for equality and in defining the rich culture of the disability community.
Judy’s actions would propel her into a place of great esteem and make her a leader within the disability community. She fought with energy and a strong sense of self. Judy didn’t allow stigma and discrimination to define her, and she didn’t allow it to stand in the way of her dreams. She never allowed anyone to decide for her what she could accomplish – only she could decide when she would give up – and Judy never gave up on anything she believed.
“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.” – Judy Heumann
From the time she contracted polio as a girl, Judy used a wheelchair and knew first-hand what it was like to be denied access to education and employment. In her landmark lawsuit with the Federal District Court against the Board of Education in New York, Judy fought to overturn discriminatory practices that denied her the right to teach despite being an honors graduate of Long Island University and having passed the oral and written exams as a part of gaining a teaching license. Judy’s case represented the first of this type of civil rights suits ever filed in a federal court. She went on to become the first wheelchair user to become a teacher in the state of New York. Education equity for people with disabilities remained of critical importance to Judy throughout her life. She was pivotal in getting the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) passed.
Judy also become an iconic civil rights advocate for people with disabilities who was a key player in the passing and implementation of other legislation which protects the rights of this community. Among these include the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. She was a core leader in the San Francisco Sit-In of 1977. This action protested the long delays in enforcing Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Judy Heumann led demonstrators into the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in San Francisco where a sit-in would be staged that lasted 25 days, representing the longest sit-in at a federal building to date.
“Disability only becomes a tragedy when society fails to provide the things needed to lead one’s daily life.” – Judy Heumann
Judy never stopped fighting injustice for the disability community and continued to advance our civil rights all the way up to the day we lost her to this world. She became a friend and mentor to so many of our community. She taught us that advocacy was a way of life, not something you could do passively. To make change you had to be willing to act, to speak up against the wrongs in this world, and to fight absolute fortitude and sheer doggedness. Judy knew that it is not enough to recognize that something is wrong – you have to do something – you have to do everything in your power to end that injustice.
“Our anger was a fury sparked by profound injustices. Wrongs that deserved ire. And with that rage, we ripped a hole in the status quo.” – Judy Heumann
Losing Judy has been felt around the world, leaving a painful hole in our hearts. But her voice and her legacy must live on within us. We must not lose that fury and we must continue to the fight until discrimination, inequity, and injustice are eradicated. We must never tire or become complacent in the face of injustice. It is up to all of us now to pick up the flag, to continue the fight and to inspire a future generation of disability leaders. So much is at stake and I know that if Judy were here, she would be at the front of the line, leading us toward victory.