Letter to the Editor: A Tribute to Judy Heumann

Judy Heumann and others pose in front of the Rowan seal before she spoke at the 2019 Rowan Commencement. - Photo via @judithheumann on Twitter

Judith E. Heumann was born on Dec. 18, 1947, and contracted polio at 18 months which required her to become a wheelchair user for the rest of her life. Over time, she became known as an American pioneer and activist for disability rights and an internationally recognized leader in the disability community. She was one of the world’s leading voices focusing on the rights and independence of people with disabilities. She later came to be known as the Mother of the Disability Rights Movement.

Judy graduated from Long Island University (LIU) in 1969 and received her master’s degree in public health from the University of California at Berkeley in 1975. Upon graduation from LIU in 1969, Ms. Heumann was denied her New York teaching license because the City of New York school board did not believe she, a wheelchair user, could get herself or her students out of the building in case of a fire. In the Heumann v. Board of Education of the City of New York case, she sued the school board and won. She became the first teacher in the state to be a teacher who is a wheelchair user.

A few years later, in the early 1970s, President Richard Nixon vetoed the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 twice. However, due to these actions, Disabled in Action organized a demonstration in NYC with a sit-in led by Judy along with 80 other activists on Madison Avenue which halted traffic. In 1974, she served as a legislative assistant to help develop the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and then a year later the 504 Sit-In happened when Joseph Califano refused to sign the regulation of the Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This led to the longest sit-in at a federal building in American History by both Judy, Kitty Cone, many other disabled activists and their allies, that lasted nearly a whole month. They received support from Delancey Street Foundation, the Salvation Army, Jefferson Airplane, and the Black Panther Party from Brad Lomax. After the sit-in, Califano signed and enacted the regulation on April 28th, 1977.

A few decades later, in 1990, she played a pivotal role within the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and again in 2006, working with the United Nations to create the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

Later in life, Judy has written two books with Kristen Joiner called, “Being Heumannand “Rolling Warrior.” She started a podcast called, “Heumann Perspective” and a part of “Crimp Camp,” a documentary of the Disability Revolution.

Judith E. Heumann passed away on March 4, 2023. Her contribution nationally and internationally to the disability community has lit the way and paved the path for disability justice activists and their allies throughout the world that felt an impact. She left an impact on the Rowan community to receive an honorary doctorate degree in humanities in 2019. The Rowan community and the disability community cannot thank her enough for all of her activism and advocacy to Disability Justice throughout the world.


Raymond Wos, Jr. and Dr. Brent Elder

For comments/questions about this story, email the.whit.rowan@gmail.com or tweet @TheWhitOnline