December 6, 2023

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Disability rights advocate Judith “Judy” Heumann, who helped secure landmark education-related laws and regulations that expanded accessibility for students and people with disabilities, died at age 75 in Washington, DC, on April 4. according to her website.

Known as the “mother” of the disability rights movement, Heumann was born in 1947 she contracted polio at the age of 2, leaving her unable to walk. When the school’s principal told her she couldn’t start kindergarten because she used a wheelchair, Heumann embarked on a lifelong journey of “fighting for the natural dignity of people with disabilities.” Extract from President Joe Bidenwho called Heumann a “pioneer”.

After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Heumann saw the New York Board of Education deny her application for a teaching license because she said she would not be able to help students or herself evacuate if there was a fire. She sued on the grounds of discrimination and became the first teacher in the state to use a wheelchair, according to Heumann’s website.

After several years of teaching, Heumann devoted herself full-time to disability advocacy. In 1977, she led a A 26-day meeting at the federal building in San Francisco to push for the enforcement of regulations for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Accommodations and services in Section 504 schools are provided to students with disabilities in K-12 and higher education.

Over the next several decades, Heumann worked to develop or implement the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, her website said.

In addition, she helped found the Berkeley Center for Independent Living, the Independent Living Movement, and the World Institute on Disability. She served on several councils that brought attention and support to people with disabilities.

In 1993, Heumann was appointed Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, where she oversaw 1997 reauthorization of IDEA this required stronger academic expectations and accountability for the education of students with disabilities. She served in this role until 2001.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement that Heumann’s leadership contributed to a nearly 20 percent jump from 2000 to 2023 in the number of students with disabilities graduating with a standard high school diploma.

George Miller, former chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee and current board member of The Century Foundation, wrote in an emailed statement: “For more than five decades, Judy has helped lead the fight for people with disabilities to gain their full civil rights. he was a fierce and courageous advocate and served as the public conscience necessary to drive groundbreaking legislative and administrative measures to expand the rights of the disabled.”

Recently, Heumann appeared in the documentary “Crip Camp: The Disability Revolution”, an award-winning 2020 American documentary film about a summer camp for teenagers with disabilities.

Heumann said in a quote on her website some people commented that her work changed the world. “But really, I just refused to accept what I was told about who I could be. And I was willing to make a fuss about it.”

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