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Judith Heumann, 75, ‘fierce advocate’ for those with disabilities

“We are grateful for [her] advocacy and lifelong dedication to creating an inclusive and accessible community for all,” said the Jewish Federations of North America.

Judith Heumann in 2015. Photo by Geraldo Magela/Agência Senado.
Judith Heumann in 2015. Photo by Geraldo Magela/Agência Senado.

Judith Heumann, the Jewish “Mother of the Disability Rights Movement,” died on March 4. She was 75 years old.

Heumann was instrumental in the Rehabilitation Act of 1973; the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), both in 1990; and the 2008 U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). She was the U.S. State Department’s first special advisor on international disability rights and served in several posts under presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Her “courage and fierce advocacy” led to “landmark achievements that increased access to education, the workplace, housing and more for people with disabilities,” U.S. President Joe Biden stated. “Her legacy is an inspiration to all Americans, including many talented public servants with disabilities in my administration.”

The Jewish Federations of North America called Heumann a “trailblazer” in a statement.

“We are grateful for Judy’s advocacy and lifelong dedication to creating an inclusive and accessible community for all and are inspired by her example to continue this critical work,” it added.

“Judy,” as her friends called her, was born in 1947 in Brooklyn, N.Y., to Ilse and Werner Heumann, who both fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s. At age 2, she was diagnosed with polio, but her parents declined to follow her doctor’s advice to have her institutionalized, as was common in those days. They kept her home despite knowing that she would never walk.

Her parents fought for her right to attend school—a right that Heumann would devote her life to, including a career pushing for the rights of others.

She is credited with paving the way for those who use wheelchairs to obtain teaching licenses in New York and elsewhere. She sued the state’s Board of Education for denying her a teaching license despite her having the requisite credentials.

As a child, Heumann learned Hebrew and later, as an adult, celebrated her bat mitzvah. (The ceremony was uncommon for girls when she was young.) She was a longtime member of the Conservative synagogue Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C.

With author Kristen Joiner, Heumann co-wrote her biography, Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist, and a companion volume for young readers, Rolling Warrior: The Incredible, Sometimes Awkward True Story of a Rebel Girl on Wheels Who Helped Spark a Revolution.

Heumann also participated in the 2020 Oscar-nominated documentary “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution.” The film talks to and tells the story of disability advocates that attended Camp Jened, a summer camp in the Catskill Mountains for people with disabilities. She attended that camp in the 1960s and worked as a counselor there in the 1970s.

“Some people say that what I did changed the world,” Heumann once wrote. “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.”

Heumann is survived by her husband, Jorge Pineda; two brothers; a niece; and a grandnephew.

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