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Difference Maker

Judith Heumann: from 'fire hazard' to top advocate for disabled people

Judith Heumann learned early on that if she was going to be part of society she'd have to fight for the right.

By Sian Griffiths/ Contributor / October 3, 2011



Ottawa

There's a buzz around Judith Heumann. After she appeared as part of a panel – suitably titled "Breaking Barriers" – at an international conference in Ottawa this summer, admirers rushed to "Judy" to thank her for being a torchbearer for disability rights.

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Her activism is clearly rooted in a strong sense of justice. Early on she learned that if she wanted to be part of society she was going to have to fight for the right.

"I had no choice because, as a disabled person, I was going to either have to get involved with changing the system that limited me or not participate in society," she says.

In 2010, Ms. Heumann became the first-ever special adviser for international disability rights at the US State Department. Her job: Promote and protect the rights of people with disabilities internationally and ensure that US foreign aid and emergency relief efforts take them and their needs into account.

But Heumann has been breaking down barriers all of her life. Born to Jewish German immigrants in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1947, she was left paralyzed after being diagnosed with polio at the age of 18 months. She has used a wheelchair most of her life.

In spite of her disability, Heumann's parents had high expectations for their eldest daughter. "You have to have an education," they told her.

Although she was a Brownie and went to Hebrew school, she couldn't understand why going to school with the other kids was off limits. "I was beginning to ask, 'Why am I not going to school? Why am I doing these other things?' " she says.

During that era, disabled children generally were excluded from much of school life. They would either be educated at home or sent to special institutions.

After years of effort by her parents she finally started public school in Grade 4 at age 9. When she was ready for high school, Heumann's mother joined with other mothers to persuade the school board to make the high school more accessible. Heumann was able to attend.

She went on to study speech and theater at Long Island University and set her heart on becoming a teacher.

But when she applied to the New York City Board of Education, she was rejected on the basis that, because she was in a wheelchair, she could be a fire hazard.

In what became a landmark ruling, she sued the school board and won – becoming the first person in a wheelchair to teach in New York City.

While in college in the late 1960s, Heumann had joined in civil rights and antiwar protests, but she also organized disability rights rallies and protests.

"We were looking to change society, flip it over," Heumann says.

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