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.
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In 1970, Heumann and some friends founded Disability in Action, a group aimed at addressing barriers to employment, housing, and education. She brought her can-do attitude to Berkeley, Calif., and cofounded the country's first Center for Independent Living (CIL).Skip to next paragraph
"She was absolutely sure that she should have the right to live like everybody else," says Joan Leon, a fellow disability rights activist. "She was instrumental in building CIL. She gave it legs."
Today, the Berkeley CIL serves as a model for other independent living centers in more than 60 countries.
In 1977, Heumann helped organize a sit-in at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare office in San Francisco. That protest, along with others nationwide, resulted in the implementation of Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, which made it illegal for federally funded programs to discriminate against disabled people.
Heumann also has helped craft legislation herself, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. And she's worked in senior posts in the Department of Education and at the World Bank.
Heumann is "a woman who laid the groundwork for basic rights, like access to education and employment," says Helena Berger, chief operating officer of the nonprofit American Association of People with Disabilities.
Today, Heumann speaks up not only for Americans with disabilities, but for the 1 billion disabled people worldwide (according to World Health Organization/World Bank estimates).
Rights for people with disabilities have come a long way – now it's "much different than what it was when I was growing up," she says.
But more needs to be done, she says. The jobless rate among disabled people stands at 15 percent, according to the US Department of Labor – one-third higher than for the general public. And people with disabilities are twice as likely as other Americans to be victims of violence, according to a 2008 Bureau of Justice Statistics report.
Heumann is convinced that breaking barriers for disabled people brings benefits for everybody.
"Once ... [disabled and nondisabled] people have opportunities to be with each other," she says, "they begin to have a much better understanding of the equality – and the benefit – of all people being together."
• October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, which raises awareness about disability employment issues and celebrates the contributions of workers with disabilities. For more information, go to: www.dol.gov/odep
• To read other stories about people making a difference, go here.