Judy Heumann, a renowned advocate for the rights of disabled people, has died at the age of 75. Heumann was an internationally recognised leader of the disability rights movement whose activism led to the implementation of major legislation in the United States.
After contracting polio as a child, she became the first wheelchair user to work as a teacher in New York City.
She died in Washington DC on Saturday.
Heumann was “widely regarded as ‘the mother’ of the disability rights movement”, according to a message posted on her website announcing her death.
She was at the forefront of major disability rights demonstrations, helped spearhead the passage of laws and founded national and international advocacy organisations, it added.
Heumann also served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, and had more than 20 years of non-profit experience. Barack Obama said he was “fortunate” to work with Heumann, and paid tribute to her life-long dedication to fight for civil rights.
The American Association of People with Disabilities also led tributes, saying her leadership “advanced the rights and inherent dignity of people with disabilities”.
Born in 1947 in Philadelphia and raised in Brooklyn, New York, she contracted polio when she was two years old and lost the ability to walk. She was not allowed to attend pre-school, because her wheelchair was considered a “fire-hazard”, and when she eventually got into a school at age nine, she recounted being treated as a “second class citizen”.
Her parents fought for her rights as a child, and she went on to study speech therapy at Long Island University and earned a masters in public health from the University of California, Berkeley. In the 1970s, she won a lawsuit against the New York Board of Education and became the first teacher in the state to use a wheelchair.
Her fight for civil rights led to her staging a 24-day sit-in at a San Francisco federal building in 1977, an event which eventually helped pave the way for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990.
“Disability only becomes a tragedy when society fails to provide the things we need to lead our lives – job opportunities or barrier-free buildings, for example,” she told a reporter in 1987. “It is not a tragedy to me that I’m living in a wheelchair.”
Heumann went on to serve in the Clinton administration from 1993 to 2001 as an assistant secretary in the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services in the Department of Education, and was appointed special adviser on International Disability Rights by Barack Obama.
Alongside her decades’ long activism, she also co-authored her memoir, Being Heumann, and its Young Adult version, Rolling Warrior, and was featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary, Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution.
Heumann is survived by her husband, Jorge, and two brothers, Ricky and Joseph.