Disability rights advocate Judith "Judy" Heumann, who was instrumental in securing landmark education-related laws and regulations that expanded accessibility for students and people with disabilities, died at age 75 in Washington, D.C., on March 4, according to her website.
Known as the "mother" of the disability rights movement, Heumann was born in 1947 and contracted polio at the age of 2, leaving her unable to walk. When a school principal said she couldn’t enter kindergarten because she used a wheelchair, Heumann set out on a lifelong path of “fighting for the inherent dignity of people with disabilities," according to a statement from President Joe Biden, who called Heumann a "trailblazer."
After earning bachelor's and master's degrees, Heumann saw the New York Board of Education reject her application for a teaching license because it said she would be unable to help students or herself evacuate if there were a fire. She sued on the basis of discrimination and went on to become the first teacher in the state to use a wheelchair, according to Heumann's website.
After teaching for several years, Heumann dedicated herself full time to disability advocacy. In 1977, she led a 26-day sit-in at a federal building in San Francisco to push for enforcement of regulations for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Students with disabilities in K-12 and higher education are provided accommodations and services in schools through Section 504.
Over the next several decades, Heumann worked to develop or implement the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, her website said.
Additionally, she helped found the Berkeley Center for Independent Living, the Independent Living Movement and the World Institute on Disability. She served on several boards that brought attention and support to people with disabilities.
In 1993, Heumann was appointed assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services, where she oversaw the 1997 reauthorization of IDEA that required stronger academic expectations and accountability for the education of students with disabilities. She served in that role until 2001.
In a statement, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said Heumann’s leadership contributed to a nearly 20 percentage point jump from 2000 to 2023 in the number of students with disabilities graduating with a standard high school diploma.
George Miller, former chair of the House Education and Labor Committee and current board member of The Century Foundation, wrote in an emailed statement, "For over five decades, Judy helped lead the fight for people with disabilities to win their full civil rights. She was a fierce and courageous advocate and served as the public conscience necessary to drive landmark legislative and administrative actions to expand disability rights."
Recently, Heumann was featured in the documentary "Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution," a 2020 American award-winning documentary film about a summer camp for teens with disabilities.
In a quote on her website, Heumann said some people voiced that the work she did changed the world. “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.”