Judith Heumann, Disability Rights Champion, Dies at 75
WASHINGTON — Judith Heumann, who spent decades championing the rights of disabled people from inside and outside of the system, died on Saturday at 75.
No cause was given in the announcement that was posted on her website.
Born on Dec. 18, 1947, Heumann was just 18 months old when she was diagnosed with polio during the 1949 epidemic of the disease.
Early on, her local school district rejected attempts by her parents to have her attend class with the rest of the student body, deeming her wheelchair a safety hazard should a fire or some other mishap occur.
She later attended a special high school, before graduating from Long Island University with a bachelor’s degree in speech and theater in 1969.
Heumann earned a master’s in public health from the University of California at Berkeley in 1975.
But her years of activism truly began after her graduation, when she waged a one-woman battle to be allowed to teach in New York City.
She later lobbied for the legislation that ultimately led to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Rehabilitation Act.
Heumann served as assistant secretary of the U.S. Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, beginning in 1993 in the Clinton administration, until 2001.
She returned to the federal government in 2010, when she was named a special adviser for International Disability Rights in the Obama State Department.
In 2017, District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty appointed Heumann to serve in the district’s Department of Disability Services as the agency’s first director.
On Monday, President Joe Biden called Heumann “a trailblazer — a rolling warrior — for disability rights in America.”
“After her school principal said she couldn’t enter kindergarten because she was using a wheelchair, Judy dedicated the rest of her life to fighting for the inherent dignity of people with disabilities,” the president said.
“Her courage and fierce advocacy resulted in the Rehabilitation Act, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act — landmark achievements that increased access to education, the workplace, housing and more for people with disabilities,” Biden said. “Judy also served in leadership positions in two presidential administrations, and she started multiple disability advocacy organizations that continue to benefit people here and around the world.
“I knew Judy for a long time. When I was vice president, we hosted a meeting together at the White House to discuss our continued efforts to break down barriers for those who face discrimination and neglect. Her legacy is an inspiration to all Americans, including many talented public servants with disabilities in my administration,” Biden said.
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona also paid tribute to Heumann, calling her “a great disability rights leader.”
“As assistant secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services during the Clinton administration, Judy helped ensure that students with disabilities not only had the right to physically attend public school, but that such students had the right to learn the same curriculum as their non-disabled peers,” Cardona said. Her leadership is realized in the nearly 20 percentage point jump from 2000 to 2023 in the number of students with disabilities who graduate with a standard high school diploma.
“Judy’s legacy also includes influencing the publication of the regulations implementing Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that bars discrimination against disabled people in federally funded programs,” he continued.
“Judy Heumann’s devotion to public education for all students was second to none. After she had polio as a toddler, her parents had to fight to enroll her in public school. When she graduated from college, she had to sue the New York Board of Education to validate that using a wheelchair did not prohibit a person from being a qualified teacher.
“One of her last speaking engagements was on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to a group of middle and high school students on the connection between the disability rights movement and the civil rights movement,” Cardona said.
“Judy was always an educator, always a trailblazer, always a leader,” he added.