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The Life and Legacy of Judy Heumann

Judy Heumann.
Judy Heumann. Image:

Judith “Judy” Heumann (1947-2023) is affectionately known as “The Mother” of disability rights movement. She was a fierce fighter for the disability community. At the age of 18 months, Judy contracted Polio. When she first tried to enroll in school she was told her wheelchair could be a fire hazard.

She started Disability in Action group and protest was the name of the game. From organizing the 504 Sit-Ins in San Francisco to the Capital Crawl, she was always on the front lines to advance equal rights for us all. The Section 504 Sit-Ins lasted for 28 days. Other organizations such as the Black Panther Party helped by providing them with hot meals. Disability rights and civil rights go hand in hand.

In 1970 Judy successfully sued the Board of Education on the basis of discrimination. Afterward, she became the first teacher in New York to use a wheelchair. In 1983 she co-founded the World Institute of Disability, one of the first global disability rights organizations founded and led by people with disabilities. Judy was appointed Special Advisor for International Disability Rights at the U.S. Department of State. In 1992 Judy married Jorge Pineda an accountant who was also a wheelchair user.

In 1951, Camp Jened opened its doors. Located in the Catskills in upstate New York, it was a ramshackle camp “for the handicapped” (a term no longer in use). Jened was their freewheeling Utopia, a place with summertime sports, smoking, and make-out sessions awaiting everyone, and campers experience liberation and full inclusion as human beings. Sadly, the camp shut its doors in 1977.

I had the pleasure of working on a webinar with Judy and some other friends in 2021. The team was led by another dear friend, Sheryl Grossman. Judy always spoke her mind, she had the ability to teach you something with almost every conversation and was a true joy to spend time with. She definitely had a sense of humor as the webinar was called Normal Like Me: Understanding the Able-Bodied Experience: A Parody as Seen through Disabled Eyes.

To learn more about Judy’s story, check out the Oscar-nominated documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution. Her books Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist, for young adults, Rolling Warrior: The Incredible, Sometimes Awkward, Ture Story of a Rebel Girl on Wheels who Helped Spark a Revolution.

I will leave you with this quote by Judy,

“Disability only becomes a tragedy when society fails to provides the things we need to lead our lives”.

Judy Heumann

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