Remembering Judith Heumann, Mother of the disability rights movement
March 7 2023, 03:01pm
Disability and civil rights activist Judith Heumann, who led a movement to reimagine what it means to be disabled in the USA, died on Saturday 4 March, aged 75.
Heumann, who founded the Independent Living Movement, was perhaps most recognized in recent years from her appearance in the documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution, which chronicled the forgotten history of a freewheeling summer camp called Camp Jened in upstate New York for teenagers with disabilities in the 1970s.
Heumann, who was born in Philadelphia in 1947 and raised in New York, contracted polio in 1949. When her mother tried to enroll her in kindergarten at a local public school, Heumann was denied entry because she was unable to walk. The principal at the time told Heumann’s mother, Ilse Heumann, that letting her attend school in a wheelchair would create a “fire hazard”. She was instead given home instruction twice a week.
After Ilse challenged those restrictions, Judy was eventually allowed to enter the building.
In Crip Camp, Heumann said that she wanted to see “feisty disabled people change the world”. Back in 2021, she told PBS News Hour that decades after the height of her activism, she had seen the country shift toward recognizing the need to address “race and gender, equality, and disability as issues”.
“Disability only becomes a tragedy when society fails to provide the things we need to lead our lives – job opportunities or barrier-free buildings, for example,” she once said. “It is not a tragedy to me that I’m living in a wheelchair.”
There have been many tributes paid to Judy since her death. One which has struck a chord with many people is from the Disability Debrief blog which was simply entitled Our movement is in mourning (disabilitydebrief.org)
Her memoir is well worth a read. One of her most quoted lines from that book is: “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.” ― Judith Heumann, Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist
May Judy rest in peace.
Image credit: Judith Heumann Twitter account