Judy Huemann, an American disability rights activist who was widely known as the “mother” of the disability rights movement, died at 75 on Saturday, March 4 in Washington D.C. In addition to being at the forefront of the passage of disability rights legislation, Huemann also founded national and international disability advocacy organizations, held federal government positions in the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of State, coauthored her memoir, “Being Huemann” and more.
“Judy Heumann’s impact cannot be overstated—every hard-won victory for disability rights since the 1960s stems directly from her leadership and advocacy,” said Xavier Becerra, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) secretary. “Because of her, people with disabilities are guaranteed equal access and opportunities to go to school, build careers, and live the lives they want to live. Judy shaped the world we live in today, and we all are better for it.”
Huemann was instrumental as a founder of the independent living movement, aiding in the passage of the Rehabilitation Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
After Richard Nixon’s veto of the 1972 Rehabilitation Act, Huemann helped lead a protest that shut down traffic in Manhattan. Additionally, she also launched a 26-day sit-in at a federal building in San Francisco in order to get the revived Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act enforced.
“I knew Judy for a long time,” read a statement from President Joe Biden. “When I was vice president, we hosted a meeting together at the White House to discuss our continued efforts to break down barriers for those who face discrimination and neglect. Her legacy is an inspiration to all Americans, including many talented public servants with disabilities in my Administration.”
Huemann was born in 1947 in Philadelphia to parents Ilse and Werner and raised in Brooklyn, New York. After contracting polio at age 2, her doctor suggested her parents institutionalize her after it became apparent she would never be able to walk. After Huemann was blocked from entering kindergarten by the principal who labeled her a “fire hazard,” her mother demanded Huemann have access to a classroom. Eventually, she was able to attend a special school, high school, Long Island University and the University of California, Berkeley.
Despite her education, the New York Board of Education refused to give Huemann a teaching license in the 1960s, saying she could not help evacuate students or herself in the case of a fire. After suing, she became the first teacher in the state to use a wheelchair.
“Some people say that what I did changed the world,” Huemann wrote, “But really, I simply refused to accept what I was told about who I could be. And I was willing to make a fuss about it.”
Read more about Huemann and her life here.