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.
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.