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Justice Department Remembers Judy Heumann

The Justice Department remembers Judy Heumann, one of the pioneers of the disability rights movement. Ms. Heumann, who used a wheelchair since childhood as a result of polio, died on Saturday, March 4, 2023. Her struggle to advance the rights of people with disabilities was pivotal in securing civil rights protections for people with disabilities and helped shape the disability rights enforcement work that the department’s Civil Rights Division does today. 

Ms. Heumann was a tireless advocate who refused to accept a life of isolation, segregation and exclusion — the reality faced by many people with disabilities when she was growing up. Her personal experiences led her to advocate for a different vision of society, where disabled people are treated as equal citizens and afforded full inclusion and participation in society. At the age of five, Ms. Heumann was told that she could not enroll in school because her wheelchair made her a fire hazard. Eventually, she was allowed into a segregated education program for children with disabilities. Later, when she had earned her degree and sought to become a teacher, she was denied a license to teach in New York City because she was unable to walk.  

Based on these experiences and many others, Ms. Heumann became a fierce advocate for change. She played important roles in advocating for passage of the Rehabilitation Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as the adoption of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Throughout her career, she worked both inside and outside of government to bring about change, serving in high posts in the Department of Education and Department of State as well as in disability advocacy organizations. 

“Judy Heumann’s legacy can be seen in all of the disability rights work that the Justice Department and our federal partners do,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “She was a true force for change and because of her, our expectations for the kinds of lives that people with disabilities live have changed dramatically.” 

Ms. Heumann led protests, including a 26-day sit-in at the Department of Health Education and Welfare (HEW) headquarters in San Francisco urging the federal government to issue regulations implementing Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits disability-based discrimination in federally funded programs and activities. The regulations had been awaiting HEW approval for four years. The regulations that were issued following the advocacy of Ms. Heumann and others changed the landscape for people with disabilities and later formed the basis for the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Ms. Heumann remained an active advocate for disability rights throughout her life and worked in collaboration with advocates across all areas of civil and human rights. Perhaps most famously, she worked closely with Brad Lomax, a member of the Black Panthers who used a wheelchair and participated in the Section 504 sit-in, to gain the support of the Black Panthers for the Section 504 protests. Ms. Heumann also mentored countless young people with disabilities, encouraging them and helping them to become effective advocates. 

In the last several years, she became more widely known as a result of her starring role in the documentary Crip Camp and the publication of her book, Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist. But throughout her life, she always made time to assist and encourage others. She is sometimes referred to as the "mother of the disability rights movement." 

Ms. Heumann once said, “Change never happens at the pace we think it should. It happens over years of people joining together, strategizing, sharing, and pulling all the levers they possibly can. Gradually, excruciatingly slowly, things start to happen, and then suddenly, seemingly out of the blue, something will tip.” Her legacy lives on in the change that she helped to create, and she will be remembered long into the future for her role in shifting our vision for people with disabilities to one of empowerment and equality. 

Updated March 7, 2023

Civil Rights
Disability Rights