Disability rights leader blazed trails for people with disabilities

IL ABLE honors the life and legacy of disability rights advocate Judy Heumann, who passed away on March 4 at age 75. Judy was a trailblazer for people with disabilities. Widely recognized as the mother of the disability rights movement, she dedicated her life to advocating for the rights of people with disabilities.

Judy was a wheelchair user as the result of contracting polio in 1949. Early in her career she sued the Department of Education after being denied a teaching license even though she passed the oral and written exams, she failed the physical exam. Judy was told that she would not be able to evacuate students or herself in case of fire. She won the right to teach and became the first teacher using a wheelchair in the state of New York.

Among Judy’s extensive list of accomplishments, she helped found the Berkeley Center for Independent Living and the Independent Living Movement, and the World Institute on Disability. Judy served as the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation from 1993-2001, she served as the first Advisor on Disability and Development at the World Bank and from 2010-2017, she served as the first Special Advisor for International Disability Rights at the U.S. State Department. 

Judy’s visionary leadership was instrumental in the creation and implementation of national disability rights legislation such as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Some people say that what I did changed the world,” Judy wrote, “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.”

Judy’s advocacy did change the world and her legacy will continue to shape the landscape of possibilities for generations of people with disabilities to come.

You can learn more about Judy Heumann’s life and work at judithheumann.com.

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