Ready, Willing, and Able to Fight – How Judy Heumann Advanced the Disability Rights Movement

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on Judy Heumann.

By Gabe Sanders.

For the last three decades, millions of American parents have been able to park their minivans between parallel white lines – avoiding the spaces with the blue and white logos that depict a stick figure in a wheelchair – and usher their child into a stroller, which they can push up a portion of the curb gradually sloped from the asphalt up to the sidewalk, before guiding the stroller up a concrete ramp and through an entrance wide enough to fit it.  When bound for a floor other than the first, they have pushed the stroller into a spacious elevator that could convey them to their destination; when nature called either parent or child, the wide bathroom stall against the wall has been utilized for changing diapers or keeping an eye on the child while the parent answered nature’s call.  Of course, the architecture permitting these somewhat unremarkable, yet exceptionally convenient activities was not created with strollers or minivans in mind.  The curb cuts and ramps that incidentally expedited the daily lives of families across the nation were the products of decades of disability rights activism by individuals like Judith Heumann, whose near-lifelong bout with polio prevents her from taking for granted the architectural accessibility of sidewalks, transportation, and buildings.

On December 18, 1947, Judith Heumann was born to two German Jewish immigrants, who nicknamed their beloved daughter Judy and decided to raise her in Brooklyn, NY.  Just 18 months into Judy’s young life, her mother and father, both of whom lost their own parents to the Holocaust, were informed that Judy was “one of the nearly forty-three thousand American children affected by the 1949 polio epidemic.”[1] She was to spend the following three months in a mechanical respirator called an iron lung, and three months after that period, Judy’s doctor would recommend that she be institutionalized.  Fortunately, Judy’s parents were no strangers to inhumane propositions and elected to disregard the doctor’s recommendation, instead committing themselves to providing the normal childhood she deserved.  Her father, Werner, was working long hours at the family’s butcher shop, so the responsibility of caring for Judy fell on the capable and unwavering shoulders of Ilse, her mother.  After three years of frequent hospital visits and learning to live as a paraplegic, Judy was denied entrance to kindergarten because her wheelchair was considered “’a fire hazard,’”[2] awakening Ilse and her five-year-old daughter to a world of ableism, activism, and self-sustenance – a world they would fight to change together.

From ages five to eight, the extent of Judy’s education was an instructor coming to her house for a total of two and a half hours per week, coupled with her mother’s best efforts to homeschool without any resources.  When Judy reached the age of most fourth-graders, her mother was finally able to convince the local school district to permit her to enroll in special education classes.  Although Heumann did not have a learning disability, she was eager to study alongside other students and quickly found a community in her peers with disabilities.  This community expanded and became increasingly tight-knit at Camp Jened, a New York-based summer camp for people with disabilities that Heumann began attending annually that same year.[3] Heumann quickly realized that Camp attendees shared “the same joy together, the same anger over the way we were treated and the same frustrations at opportunities we didn’t have”[4] – including the opportunity to attend high school with other teens. The citywide policy in Brooklyn had previously dictated that Heumann, who was set to enter high school in 1961, must return to home instruction; but, once again thanks to the pressure applied by Ilse Heumann and other parents, who exposed the discriminatory nature of the policy, it was reversed.  By the time she reached Long Island University, Judy herself was organizing demonstrations intended not only to change architectural standards but the prejudiced perceptions of disabilities that were ingrained in the traditional medical model.

After earning a degree in speech therapy with honors and minoring in education, Heumann pursued a teaching license with hopes of becoming “the city’s first teacher in a wheelchair.”[5] In order to obtain the certificate, she was required to pass three exams: one oral, one written, and one physical – all administered in buildings without wheelchair accessibility.  She passed the first two but was failed on the physical exam “because of paralysis of both lower extremities sequelae polio mellitus,”[6] or as she paraphrased, “I’d been denied my license because I couldn’t walk.”[7] In response, Heumann filed a 1970 lawsuit in Federal District Court – Heumann v. Board of Education of the City of New York – charging the Board of Education with discriminating against her for being physically handicapped.[8] During the case, which was the first civil rights suit of its kind and thus received ample press coverage, Heumann co-founded Disabled in Action (DIA), an organization dedicated to defending the civil rights of people with disabilities through political protest.  Heumann won the suit, changing the standard while also obtaining the license she would use to teach elementary school for three years.

In 1972, the United States (US) Congress voted to pass a historic civil-rights bill known as the Rehabilitation Act, which would prohibit discrimination “on the basis of disability” within vocational programs receiving financial support from the federal government.  Instead of signing it into law, then-President Richard Nixon vetoed the bill on account of “congressional irresponsibility,”[9] impelling Heumann to lead roughly fifty DIA members in a unique act of protest – bravely stationing their wheelchairs in “the middle of Madison Avenue, shutting down all four lanes” and causing a “major traffic jam.”[10] Amid mounting pressure created by the early stages of the Watergate Scandal, as well as numerous additional DIA-led demonstrations, Nixon signed the Rehabilitation Act in September of 1973.  However, the portion of the legislation guaranteeing civil rights protections for people with disabilities, Section 504, could not be implemented without the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) establishing “enabling regulations.”[11] None such regulations were even drafted until 1977, and upon their finalization, HEW Director Joseph Califano was given a deadline of April 4 for their issuance by the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities (ACCD), which he ignored.  Taking a page from the book frequently consulted by prominent leaders of the Civil Rights Movement – the source of the legislation after which Section 504 was modeled – Heumann and other DIA activists organized a nationwide sit-in.

Beginning on April 5, protestors gathered in and around HEW regional offices across the country to demand that Califano sign the regulations.  He again refused, so in several of the occupied buildings, including Califano’s D.C. office, hundreds of people sat in overnight.  Stationed inside the San Francisco Federal Building, Heumann and roughly 150 others resolved to remain within the building until Califano’s signature had been inscribed.  However, after a few days, this endeavor became dangerous, as protestors were unable to access crucial resources – including back-up ventilators, personal care attendants, and food.[12] With assistance from individuals and groups like the Black Panther Party, United Farm Workers, and the Salvation Army, who imported necessities like food and blankets,[13] Heumann and her cohort were able to occupy the building for 23 days.  Califano finally signed the regulations on April 28, 1974.

Since the momentous Section 504 Sit-In, which set the stage for the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, Judy Heumann has earned a bounty of accolades and played an integral role in advancing the “social model” – an alternative to the medical model that recognizes social barriers, rather than impairment, as disabling people.  Three years after the ADA was signed, she was selected as the Assistant Secretary of Education for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, a position she held until 2001.  In 2002, Heumann became the World Bank’s first Advisor on Disability and Development, and in 2010, she was appointed Special Advisor for International Disability Rights by President Obama.  These positions allowed her to take her fight to the global stage, on which she continues to fight not just for the “ordinary daily life that non-disabled Americans too often take for granted” –  “the right to ride a bus or a train; the right to any job for which we are qualified; the right to enter any theater, restaurant, or public accommodation” [14] – but for true equity.

[1] Judith Heumann and Kristen Joiner, Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist (Beacon Press, 2020).

[2] Heumann and Joiner.

[3] Netflix, CRIP CAMP: A DISABILITY REVOLUTION | Full Feature | Netflix, 2020.

[4] Joseph P. Shapiro, No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement (Crown, 2011).

[5] Andrew H. Malcolm, “Woman in Wheel Chair Sues to Become Teacher,” The New York Times, May 27, 1970, sec. Archives.

[6] Malcolm.

[7] TEDx Talks, Our Fight for Disability Rights and Why We’re Not Done yet | Judith Heumann | TEDxMidAtlantic, 2017.

[8] Malcolm, “Woman in Wheel Chair Sues to Become Teacher.”

[9]How Regulation Came to Be: The Rehabilitation Act of 1973,” Daily Kos, accessed January 12, 2022,

[10] Heumann and Joiner, Being Heumann.

[11] Heumann and Joiner.

[12] Netflix, CRIP CAMP.

[13] Julia Carmel, “Before the A.D.A., There Was Section 504,The New York Times, July 22, 2020, sec. U.S.

[14] Netflix, CRIP CAMP.