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Judy Heumann

 “I learned that discrimination was unfortunately a natural part of life in the United States and, as I would learn later, in the world. The physical barriers may be coming down, but attitudes change very slowly, attitudes and acts of discrimination are the biggest problems facing people with disabilities.”

Heumann said that no amount of money could remove the obstacles created by biases.  She states:

I was a child in the 1950's and 60's, too early to benefit from the IDEA. I was one of more than one million disabled children who were being denied the right to go to school. I contracted polio when I was one and a half. When I was five years old and ready for kindergarten, our neighborhood public school would not take me because I used a wheelchair. The school refused to allow me to attend, calling me a fire hazard!  Instead, the school system sent a tutor to my house twice a week. I received exactly two and a half hours of education a week!

Throughout my years as a student, the school system seemed to continually send me the message that my prospects were limited and my future unimportant. But my mother and father were immigrants who truly believed that America was the land of opportunity. They always believed in their hearts that I had a right to an education that could help ensure a successful future.

However, since there was no law to guarantee that right, my parents soon learned they had to fight for my right to achieve.

When I was nine, in the fourth grade, I finally got to go to a real school. I was placed in a class hidden in a far corner of the basement. We were treated like second-class citizens. We were allowed to mix with the non-disabled children only on Fridays, at our school-wide assemblies.

The message from the school was: disabled children are not valued as people, and certainly not as students. The results were predictable: very few of the children in my "special" class went on to further studies. In fact, I was the first student in my class to go on to high school -- but not until my Mom and Dad fought for this right. If it were not for them, upon graduation from the eighth grade, I would have gone back to home instruction.

My parents and hundreds of thousands of others waged a fight to open the school house doors for their disabled children. I believe that this struggle will be viewed by history as reaffirming the fundamental right of all Americans to be free of discrimination and arbitrary treatment.”

Heumann's early struggles prepared her for the New York City Board of Education's refusal to allow her to teach, which was based solely on the fact she was disabled. Heumann sued and won. She taught elementary school for three years. In 1970, Heumann, with several other disabled friends, founded Disabled in Action. Its goal was to secure protection for the disabled under civil rights laws.

Disabled in Action was only the first of a long string of organizations which Heumann would be actively involved with.

  • She became a legislative assistant to the chairperson of the senate committee on Labor and Public Welfare in 1974. While there she helped develop legislation that became the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
  • From 1975 – 1982 Deputy Director of the Center for Independent Living.
  • From 1982 - 1983 she was the special assistant to the executive director of California’s State Department of Rehabilitation.
  • In 1983 Heumann co-founded the World Institute on Disabilities (WID) with Ed Roberts.
  • In 1990 she helped draft The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
  • She has also helped develop regulations for the section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1975.
  • She helped design federal and state legislation that led to the creation of more than 200 independent living centers nation wide.
  • From 1993-2001 she served in President Clinton’s administration as Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services at the Department of Education.

Read more about Judy Heumann.