Judith Heumann

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Judy Heumann
Special Advisor for International Disability Rights
In office
June 7, 2010 – January 20, 2017
PresidentBarack Obama
Preceded byPosition established
Succeeded byVacant
Assistant Secretary of Education for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services
In office
June 1993 – January 20, 2001
PresidentBill Clinton
Preceded byRobert Davila
Succeeded byRobert Pasternack
Personal details
Born (1947-12-18) December 18, 1947 (age 72)
Political partyDemocratic
EducationLong Island University (BS)
University of California, Berkeley (MPH)

Judith Ellen Heumann "Judy" (born December 18, 1947) is an American disability rights activist. She is recognized internationally as a leader in the disability community. Heumann is a lifelong civil rights advocate for people with disabilities. Her work with governments and non governmental organizations (NGOs), non-profits, and various other disability interest groups, has produced significant contributions since the 1970's to the development of human rights legislation and policies benefiting children and adults with disabilities. Through her work in the World Bank and the State Department, Heumann led the mainstreaming of disability rights into international development. Her contributions extended the international reach of the independent living movement.[1]

Early life[edit]

Heumann's commitment to disability rights stems from her personal experiences. She had polio at the age of 18 months, and has used a wheelchair most of her life. Heumann had to fight repeatedly to be included in the educational system. The local public school refused to allow her to attend, calling her a fire hazard. Instead, for three years she was given home instruction twice a week for about an hour each visit. Heumann's mother, Ilsa Heumann, a community activist in her own right, challenged the decision. Heumann was then allowed to go to a special school in the fourth grade for disabled children. Per city policy, Heumann was to return to home instruction for high school. Heumann's mother rallied against this policy with other parents who put enough pressure on the school to reverse the policy. Heumann entered high school in 1961.

She attended Camp Jened, a camp for children with disabilities, in Hunter, New York every summer from ages 9 to 18. Heumann's experience of camp brought her a greater awareness of the connected of disabled experience, later saying, "We had the same joy together, the same anger over the way we were treated and the same frustrations at opportunities we didn't have."[2] At Camp Jened, Heumann met Bobbi Linn and Freida Tankus, who she would later work with as disability rights activists.[3][4] The 2020 documentary Crip Camp features Camp Jened campers, including Heumann.


Heumann began making major moves toward rights for people with disabilities while attending Long Island University. She organized rallies and protests with other students with and without disabilities, demanding access to her classrooms by ramps and the right to live in a dorm. Heumann studied speech therapy.[5]

Heumann v. Board of Education of the City of New York[6][edit]

Heumann was denied her New York teaching license because the Board did not believe she could get herself or her students out of the building in case of a fire. She sued the Board of Education on the basis of discrimination. A local newspaper toted a headline of 'You Can Be President, Not Teacher, with Polio'. After the judge recommended that New York City’s Board of Education rethink its decision, and it became very likely the Board of Education would lose, they settled out of court. Heumann became the first wheelchair user to teach in New York City[7][8] and taught elementary school there for three years.[9]

Policy work and advocacy[edit]

Disabled in Action[edit]

Heumann received much mail from disabled people around the country due to her press coverage while suing the Board of Education. Many wrote in about their experiences with discrimination because of their disabilities. Based on the outpouring of support and letters, in 1970, Heumann and several friends founded Disabled in Action (DIA), an organization that focused on securing the protection of people with disabilities under civil rights laws through political protest.[10][11] It was originally called Handicapped in Action, but Heumann disliked that name and lobbied to change it. Early versions of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 were vetoed by President Richard Nixon in October 1972 and March 1973.[12] In 1972, DIA demonstrated in New York City with a sit-in protesting one of the vetoes. Led by Heumann, eighty activists staged this sit-in on Madison Avenue, stopping traffic.[13]

Center for Independent Living[edit]

Ed Roberts asked Judy to move to California to work for the Center for Independent Living where she served as the deputy director from 1975 to 1982. She was an early adopter of the Independent Living Movement.

Heumann was responsible for the implementation of legislation at the national level for programs in special education, disability research, vocational rehabilitation and independent living, serving more than 8 million youth and adults with disabilities.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act[edit]

While serving as a legislative assistant to the chairperson of the U.S. Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare in 1974, Heumann helped develop legislation that became the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

504 Sit-in[edit]

Initially, Joseph Califano, U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, refused to sign meaningful regulations for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which was the first U.S. federal civil rights protection for people with disabilities.[14] After an ultimatum and deadline, demonstrations took place in ten U.S. cities on April 5, 1977, including the beginning of the 504 Sit-in at the San Francisco Office of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. This sit-in, led by Heumann and organized by Kitty Cone, lasted until May 4, 1977, a total of 28 days, with more than 150 people refusing to leave. It is the longest sit-in at a federal building to date. Joseph Califano signed both Education of All Handicapped Children and Section 504 on April 28, 1977.[15][16][17][18][19][20][21]

World Institute on Disability[edit]

Heumann co-founded the World Institute on Disability with Ed Roberts and Joan Leon in 1983, serving as co-director until 1993.

Department on Disability Services[edit]

Mayor Fenty, District of Columbia, appointed Heumann as the first Director for the Department on Disability Services, where she was responsible for the Developmental Disability Administration and the Rehabilitation Services Administration.

Clinton Administration[edit]

Heumann served in the Clinton Administration as Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services at the US Department of Education from 1993 to 2001.

World Bank[edit]

From 2002 to 2006, Heumann served as the World Bank Group's first Advisor on Disability and Development, leading the World Bank's work on disability and worked to expand the Bank’s knowledge and capability to work with governments and civil society on including disability in the Bank discussions with client countries, its country-based analytical work, and support for improving policies, programs, and projects that allow disabled people around the world to live and work in the economic and social mainstream of their communities.[1] She was Lead Consultant to the Global Partnership for Disability and Development.

Judith Heumann, Special Advisor for Disability Rights Heumann in Tokyo on 4 December 2014

Special Advisor[edit]

A photograph of Judy Heumann in her power chair next to Barbara Ransom. They are holding hands and smiling, standing in front of a sponsor banner.
Judy Heumann and Barbara Ransom at TASH's Outstanding Leadership in Disability Law Symposium and Awards Dinner, George Washington University, July 25, 2019

In 2010, Heumann became the Special Advisor on International Disability Rights for the U.S. State Department appointed by President Barack Obama.[22] Heumann was the first to hold this role, and served from 2010-2017. On January 20, 2017, Heumann left her post at the State Department with the change of a new administration. The Special Advisor role has not yet been filled under the Trump Administration. Paralympian Ann Cody is currently the most senior official working on international disability rights at State.

Ford Foundation[edit]

From September 2017 to April 2019, Heumann was a Senior Fellow at the Ford Foundation. At Ford, she worked to help advance the inclusion of disability in the Foundation’s work. She also promoted the intentional inclusion of disability in philanthropy work. Heumann produced a paper co-written by Katherine Salinas and Michellie Hess titled Roadmap for Inclusion: Changing the Face of Disability in Media. This paper explores the lack of representation of disabled people in front of and behind the camera, as well as prominent stereotypes of disabled characters when represented in the media, and concludes with a call to action to increase disabled representation in media.


Heumann's book, “Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist,” was published in February 2020. It tells her personal story of fighting for the right to receive an education, have a job, and "just be human."



Heumann graduated from Long Island University in 1969. She also earned a Master of Science degree in public health at the University of California, Berkeley in 1975.

Heumann has been awarded six honorary doctorates:

  1. Long Island University, Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters, 1994
  2. University of Toledo, Ohio, an Honorary Doctorate of Public Service, 2004
  3. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Honorary Doctorate of Public Administration, 2001
  4. Brooklyn College, Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters,[25] 2018
  5. Middlebury College, Honorary Doctorate of Education, 2019
  6. Rowan University, Honorary Doctorate of Humanities, 2019

Awards and recognition[edit]

  • 2019: The Lurie Institute for Disability Policy gave an award "The journey to Achieving Equality: Past, Present, and Future of Disability Activism with gratitude for your leadership and activism in civil rights."
  • 2018: Women's Caucus Award given by the National Council on Independent Living
  • 2018: Society for Disability Studies President's Award.[26] SDS says of their decision to award Heumann:

    "SDS confers the President’s Award for artists and activists who embody the goals of the Society, reiterating our commitment to all kinds of work in disability studies. SDS recognizes Judy Heumann for her five-decade career as a disabled activist who has changed the lives of every single disabled person in the United States and across the globe. Her work has shown the vibrancy and strength of the social model of disability and the power and importance of the disability rights movement’s central mantra: 'nothing about us without us.'"

  • 2017: U.S. International Council on Disabilities, Dole-Harkin Award
  • 2017: InterAction Disability Inclusion Award, in recognition of Judy's major impact on disability inclusion in international development.
  • 2014: The Berkeley Rotary Club gave its annual Rotary Peace Grove Award to Heumann and the late Ed Roberts, another disability rights activist.[27]
  • Max Starkloff Lifetime Achievement Award from National Council on Independent Living In recognition of a lifetime of dedicated hard work and leadership to advance the Independent Living and Disability Rights Movements and her commitment to the protection and expansion of the civil and human rights of people with disabilities.
  • Champion of Disability Rights Award from the SPAN Parent Advocacy Network. "For lifelong commitment and activism for the human and civil rights of children and adults with disabilities in the United States throughout the world."
  • Advocacy Award from ALPHA Disability Section: "This award is presented to a person or a consumer-driven organization who has demonstrated excellence in the area of advocacy to improve the health and quality of life for people with disabilities."
  • Distinguished Service Award from NARRTC (formerly known as the National Association of Rehabilitation Research and Training Centers): "In recognition of important contributions and achievements that have strategically advanced the field of disability through her research, teaching, service, and advocacy on behalf of person with disabilities."
  • Heumann was the first recipient of the Henry B. Betts Award from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (later awarded jointly with the American Association of People with Disabilities).

Personal life[edit]

Heumann is married to Jorge Pineda, and lives in Washington, D.C. Heumann was born in Brooklyn to German-Jewish Immigrants and is the oldest of three children.[5] She is the sister of Joe Heumann, a noted film professor and published author. Judy does not view her disability as a tragedy, saying, “Disability only becomes a tragedy for me when society fails to provide the things we need to lead our lives- job opportunities or barrier-free buildings, for example. It is not a tragedy to me that I’m living in a wheelchair[2]”.


  1. ^ a b "World Bank Appoints Judy Heumann to New Disability Adviser Post". Archived from the original on 20 October 2010. Retrieved 21 February 2018.
  2. ^ a b Shapiro, Joseph (1994). No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging New Civil Rights Movement. Three Rivers Press. p. 20.
  3. ^ Patterson, Linda (December 1, 2012). "Points of Access: Rehabilitation Centers, Summer Camps, and Student Life in the Making of Disability Activism, 1960-1973". Journal of Social History. 2 (46): 473–499.
  4. ^ Patterson, Linda. "Accessing the Academy: The Disabled Student Movement, 1950-1973". hdl:1811/48349. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  5. ^ a b Shapiro, Joseph (1993). No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement. New York: Three Rivers Press. pp. 56. ISBN 0812924126.
  6. ^ "HEUMANN v. BOARD OF EDUCA | 320 F.Supp. 623 (1970) | supp6231818 | Leagle.com". Leagle.
  7. ^ http://www.adawatch.org/JudyHeumannPA.htm
  8. ^ "Disability Social History Project". www.disabilityhistory.org. Retrieved 21 February 2018.
  9. ^ "Judith Heumann - DRILM - University of California, Berkeley". bancroft.berkeley.edu. Retrieved 21 February 2018.
  10. ^ "Judith Heumann". www.ilusa.com. Retrieved 21 February 2018.
  11. ^ "Disabled In Action: Photos (Judy Heumann)". www.disabledinaction.org. Retrieved 21 February 2018.
  12. ^ "The Rehabilitation Act of 1973: Independence Bound | ACL Administration for Community Living". acl.gov.
  13. ^ "Disability History Timeline". Rehabilitation Research & Training Center on Independent Living Management. Temple University. 2002. Archived from the original on 20 December 2013.
  14. ^ "Short History of the 504 Sit in". dredf.org.
  15. ^ Shapiro, Joseph (1994). No Pity: People with Diabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement. New York: Three Rivers Press. pp. 69–70.
  16. ^ "Disability History Timeline". Rehabilitation Research & Training Center on Independent Living Management. Temple University. 2002. Archived from the original on 2013-12-20.
  17. ^ "The Regents of the University of California. 2008. "The Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement." Berkeley, CA: The University of California Berkeley". Retrieved 6 October 2014.
  18. ^ "Disability Social History Project, article title Famous (and not-so-famous) People with Disabilities". Retrieved 6 October 2014.
  19. ^ "EDGE - Curriculum - Biology". disabilityhistory.org.
  20. ^ "Political Organizer for Disability Rights, 1970s-1990s, and Strategist for Section 504 Demonstrations, 1977". cdlib.org.
  21. ^ "Kitty Cone, Facts On File, Inc., 2009. American History Online; Facts on File information obtained from Encyclopedia of American Disability History". Encyclopedia of American Disability History.
  22. ^ "Judith E. Heumann-Director, DC Department on Disability Services Biography". Retrieved 21 February 2018.
  23. ^ https://commonslibrary.org/ted-talk-our-fight-for-disability-rights/
  24. ^ Eric Kohn (2020-01-23). "'Crip Camp' Review: A Stirring Look at the Roots of the Disability Rights Movement in a Hippy Summer Camp – IndieWire". Indiewire.com. Retrieved 2020-02-16.
  25. ^ "Brooklyn College to Award Judy Heumann Honorary Doctorate at Its 2018 Commencement Ceremony". CUNY Newswire. Retrieved 2019-06-26.
  26. ^ "President's Award". Society for Disability Studies. 2016-08-29. Retrieved 2019-06-26.
  27. ^ "Berkeley disability activists receive peace award in emotional ceremony". 21 July 2014. Retrieved 21 February 2018.

Further reading[edit]

  • Judith E. Heumann, Including the Voices of Disabled People in the International Development Agenda, Thornburgh Family Lecture Series, University of Pittsburgh School of Law accessed at [1] July 24, 2006
  • Judith E. Heumann, Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement: Pioneering Disability Rights Advocate and Leader, 1960s-2000, oral history, Online Archive of California, 2004, retrieved from [2] July 24, 2006
  • Ilene Zeitzer interview with Judy Heumann. Originally published in, "Change from Within: International Overview of the Impact of Disabled Politicians and Disability Policy Bodies on Governance". retrieved from [3] April 29, 2009

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Robert Davila
Assistant Secretary of Education for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services
Succeeded by
Robert Pasternack
Diplomatic posts
New office Special Advisor for International Disability Rights