Judith Heumann, the Jewish “Mother of the Disability Rights Movement,” died on March 4. She was 75 years old.
The Jewish Federations of North America called Heumann a “trailblazer,” explaining in a statement that “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.”
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 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). She was the US State Department’s first special advisor on international disability rights and served in several posts under presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
“Judy,” as her friends called her, was born in 1947 in Brooklyn, 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, and they fought for her right to attend school.
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, where she was eulogized.
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.”
“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.