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Disability Rights Activist Judith Heumann, 75, Has Died

The ‘rolling warrior’ whose efforts led to the Americans With Disabilities Act spent her life fighting for justice

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MARK SCHIEFELBEIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

After a bout with polio as a small child, Judith Heumann lost the use of her legs. That didn’t stop her from changing the world. Far from it: First she fought for her own rights to access education and job opportunities, then expanded the battle to win equal rights for all people with disabilities.

Her intelligence and perseverance helped spark a revolution that led to the passage of the Section 504 accessibility law, precursor to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, among other efforts that made her arguably the most well known and revered disability rights activist in American history.

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Upon her death in Washington on March 4, President Biden lauded her in a statement as “a trailblazer — a rolling warrior — for disability rights in America.” 

Many Americans first learned of Heumann’s remarkable life’s work in the Oscar-nominated 2020 documentary Crip Camp, about Camp Jened, a summer camp for people with disabilities in New York’s Catskills Mountains where she was a camper and counselor.  

The film also highlighted the camp’s role as a springboard for activism, often led by Heumann. That included a seminal event in 1977: At age 29, Heumann organized a protest in San Francisco to pressure the Carter administration to sign off on and begin enforcing Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that would ban any institution receiving federal funds from discriminating against disabled people. Similar protests at federal buildings in other cities soon died down, but in San Francisco more than 100 people participated in a sit-in for nearly a month, even as the building’s water and phone connections were cut off.

Heumann later spoke forcefully at a special congressional hearing on the issue, and Joseph A. Califano Jr., secretary of health, education and welfare, signed off on Section 504 on April 28, 1977 — laying the foundation for further expansions of protections in the ADA and other legislation that advanced disability rights.

Born in Philadelphia on Dec. 18, 1947, to Jewish parents who had fled Nazi Germany as children, Heumann was raised in Brooklyn, where at age 5 she was prevented from entering school because she used a wheelchair. She wouldn’t be able to attend school until age 9 because of her disability (one administrator said she would be a fire hazard), and even then she was segregated from students without disabilities.

It was a very different era: Neighbors “would literally walk across the street” so they wouldn’t have to pass her house, Heumann said in a TEDx talk. “I think this is when my family really began to realize what disability meant to some people: fear.”

She was nearly prevented from attending high school because none was wheelchair accessible, but her parents successfully fought the city for accommodations. “I was learning more and more what discrimination was,” she notes in the talk, “and learning that I needed to be my own advocate.”  

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Heumann later sued for the right to work as a public school teacher in New York City — becoming the first person in a wheelchair to be hired there — and went on to get her master’s in public health from the University of California at Berkeley. She also served as assistant secretary of the office of special education and rehabilitation services in the Clinton administration and a special adviser in the Obama State Department.

She lived for decades with her husband, Jorge Pineda, in the Kennedy-Warren apartment building in Washington’s Cleveland Park neighborhood. “She had this quiet strength and sweetness to her,” says longtime fellow resident Rich Manegio, 59. “People were just drawn to her. She never talked about herself, she’d just ask about others: ‘How are the kids? How are you?’”   

And official accolades continue to pour forth. “Judy Heumann’s impact cannot be overstated — every hard-won victory for disability rights since the 1960s stems directly from her leadership and advocacy,” said U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra. “Because of her, people with disabilities are guaranteed equal access and opportunities to go to school, build careers, and live the lives they want to live. Judy shaped the world we live in today, and we all are better for it.”

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