NCI Mourns The Loss of Judy Heumann

by Dorothy Hiersteiner | March 6, 2023
Categories: Announcements

Left: A black-and-white photo of Judy Heumann, a disability rights advocate, speaking into a microphone. She is sitting in her wheelchair, wearing glasses and a badge that reads "sign 504".

Right: A color photo of Judy Heumann smiling in her wheelchair. She is wearing glasses and a blue top.
Judy Heumann. Photo Credit

NCI mourns the loss of Judy Heumann, who passed away over the weekend. Judy was a tireless advocate for disability rights and worked to break down barriers to ensure that people with disabilities have equal access and opportunities to live the lives they want to live. Judy was a founder of the independent living movement and played a critical role in the passage of the Rehabilitation Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

HSRI President Emerita and NCI founder Val Bradley shares her memories of Judy Heumann.

I first became aware of Judy in 1975 when she came to California to be the Deputy Director of the Berkeley Center for Independent Living where she worked until 1982.  The Berkeley Center was the forerunner of the independent living movement.  I knew of the work of the Center since I had the good fortune of spending time with its founder, Ed Roberts, who became the Director of the California Department of Vocational Rehabilitation.  Both Judy and Ed were survivors of polio. 

The next time I was made aware of her was at the White House Conference on Handicapped Individuals Conference which opened on May 23, 1977.  HSRI was under contract with then HEW [Department of Health, Education and Welfare] to assist with the planning and logistics of the Conference.  Judy was a delegate, and I was able to see her in action and to witness the strength and breadth of her advocacy.  Months before the conference, HEW Secretary Joseph Califano had refused to sign off on regulations that would have provided enforcement of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act which prohibited discrimination against people with disabilities in any federally funded program.  Judy and colleagues demonstrated at HEW in Washington D.C. and she was an organizer of a sit-in at the San Francisco Office of HEW from April 5, 1977 to May 4, 1977 – the longest such sit-in in history.  Simultaneous sit-ins were happening at 9 other regional HEW offices.  Because of the relentless pressure by Judy and her colleagues, Califano signed the Education for All Handicapped Children’s Act and Section 504 regulations on April 28, 1977 – only days before the White House Conference.  There was an enormous sigh of relief by the Conference organizers. 

Judy took on many roles after that including at the Department of Education and the Department of State and as the co-founder of the World Institute on Disability.  I met her again when she because DC’s first Director of the Department of Disability Services.  We were working with the DD agency to do training and technical assistance with their ongoing federal litigation.  Judy was in her element and raised the profile of the Department as well as the cause of people with disabilities.

The last time I saw her was at the ASAN Gala a few years ago where she received an award for her lifetime of advocacy.  When she finished her speech, she came over to me to say hi and gave me her card.  I was touched to be remembered by such a giant in our field.  Good bye Judy, what an extraordinary legacy you leave behind.

Judy’s impact extended far beyond the borders of the United States. As the co-founder of the World Institute on Disability, she was a leading voice for disability rights on the global stage. She worked tirelessly to raise awareness of the challenges faced by people with disabilities around the world and to promote the inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of society.

Judy’s legacy will live on through the countless individuals whose lives she touched and the countless achievements she helped to make possible. Her courage, determination, and unwavering commitment to the cause of disability rights will continue to inspire future generations of advocates and activists.

Rest in peace, Judy Heumann. Your work and your spirit will never be forgotten.

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