Judy Heumann, Who Led the Fight for Disability Rights, Dies at 75

Judy Heumann, who spent decades attacking a political establishment indifferent to the rights of disabled people and won one fight after another, ultimately joining and reforming the very establishment she once inveighed against, died on Saturday in Washington, D.C. She was 75.

An announcement on her personal website did not specify the cause.

A quadriplegic since childhood, Ms. Heumann (pronounced human) began her career in activism waging a one-woman battle to be allowed to work as a teacher in New York City when discrimination against disabled people was not widely understood as a problem.

She went on to become an official in the Clinton administration, a special adviser in the Obama State Department and a fellow or board member at some of the nation’s leading nonprofits. She was also featured in the Oscar-nominated 2020 documentary “Crip Camp.”

Over time, she saw a revolution occur in the government’s involvement in the lives of disabled people such as herself. And she, as much as anyone else, helped bring about that revolution.

A pivotal moment came in San Francisco in 1977.

It had been four years since President Richard Nixon had signed the Rehabilitation Act, one section of which, 504, was supposed to outlaw discrimination against disabled people by any institution receiving federal money.

“It was a very important provision because it would mean, for example, that you could not discriminate against someone with a disability in preschool, in elementary school, in high school, at universities, in hospitals, in government,” Ms. Heumann told the BBC in 2020. “And if in fact discrimination occurred, you would have a remedy. You could go to court. You could file a complaint.”

Yet officials repeatedly delayed implementing the measure, and Joseph A. Califano Jr., the secretary of health, education and welfare under President Jimmy Carter, said he had wanted to overhaul the regulations before authorizing them.

Activists responded that there would be national protests if Mr. Califano did not sign off on the original form of the law by April 4.

April 5 arrived. Protesters in cities throughout the nation occupied federal offices. Ms. Heumann, then 29, organized the San Francisco contingent. She appeared with more than 100 other people of varying disabilities to demand action from Joseph Maldonado, the regional director who reported to Mr. Califano from San Francisco.

“No one had briefed him; he didn’t know what 504 was,” Ms. Heumann told The New York Times in 2020. “We were incredulous about the fact that nobody was taking what we were doing seriously.”

The other protest actions soon ended. But the San Francisco sit-in continued for almost a month. It has often been described as the longest nonviolent occupation of a federal building in American history.

Many of the protesters did not bring necessary supplies, or even a change of clothes. The government cut the building’s water and phone connections.

Fortunately, deaf protesters knew another way to communicate: sign language. That is how they passed messages out of the building. Other protesters knew a diverting form of amusement: wheelchair races.

The sit-in received support from San Francisco’s mayor, George Moscone, who sent over mattresses, and from the Black Panther Party, which delivered ribs and fried chicken.

Ms. Heumann later traveled to Washington and participated in a special congressional hearing. “We will no longer allow the government to oppress disabled individuals,” Ms. Heumann said. “We want the law enforced. We want no more segregation.”

Then she turned to address Eugene Eidenberg, a representative of Mr. Califano. “I would appreciate it,” she said, her voice cracking but still determined, “if you would stop shaking your head in agreement when I don’t think you understand what we are talking about.”

On April 28, Mr. Califano signed Section 504. The measure’s provisions for federal institutions and activities prepared the way for the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which broadened those protections to include the private sector and many other areas of public life.

After Mr. Califano capitulated, Ms. Heumann said, “We believe we have won the major issues.”

Judith Ellen Heumann was born in Philadelphia on Dec. 18, 1947. She grew up in Brooklyn. Her parents, Werner and Ilse Heumann, were both sent away from Nazi Germany as Jewish children, and neither of them saw their parents again. Werner ran a butcher shop, and Ilse volunteered for local civic groups.

During the 1949 polio epidemic, when Judy was 18 months old, she was diagnosed with the disease. She spent three months in an iron lung.

When her mother tried enrolling her in kindergarten, the principal said she could not attend, calling her a “fire hazard.” She was not able to properly enroll in school until she was 9 years old, and even then she took her classes with other disabled students in the basement. She was able to mix with the rest of the student body only once a week during assemblies.

She attended a special high school, graduated from Long Island University with a bachelor’s degree in speech and theater in 1969, and earned a master’s in public health from the University of California at Berkeley in 1975.

She first came to prominence as an advocate for the disabled in 1970, when she tried to become a New York City teacher. She passed every requirement except a physical and was denied a position, with the cited cause being “paralysis of both lower extremities.” Regulations stipulated that teachers must not have physical issues that prevented them from moving on stairs quickly or from escorting students out of school in case of an emergency.

Ms. Heumann sued the city and went public, telling The Times that if a school lacked a ramp or elevator, she could teach on the ground floor, and adding that she moved faster with her electric wheelchair than normal pedestrians did walking.

The Times editorial board wrote in her favor, arguing that “the blind student who takes mental notes and the paraplegic who wheels himself through school show a determination that exceeds the courage of more acclaimed hero-athletes in our society.” Mayor John Lindsay urged “a thoughtful and compassionate review” of her case.

Within a few months, Ms. Heumann won her license — becoming New York City’s first teacher in a wheelchair.

She went on to found, help run or advise many organizations concerned with the rights of the disabled, including the Center for Independent Living, a Berkeley group that she called “the first organization in the world to be run for and by the disabled.”

She worked in government in the mid-1970s as an employee of the Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare. She returned to Washington from 1993 to 2001 as the assistant secretary of the office of special education and rehabilitation services in the Clinton administration.

In the Obama administration, she experienced a rare failure when she tried to convince the Senate to recommend ratifying an international treaty modeled on the Americans with Disabilities Act.

She also held positions as an adviser, fellow or board member with institutions like the World Bank, the Ford Foundation and Human Rights Watch.

In August 1991, Ms. Heumann attended a program of a disability rights nonprofit in Eugene, Ore., and was struck by the broad shoulders of another attendee in a wheelchair, an accountant named Jorge Pineda. Less than a year later, they were married.

He survives her, along with her brothers, Ricky and Joseph.

During her youth, Ms. Heumann was a camper and counselor at Camp Jened, a summer camp for disabled people in the Catskills that, in 2020, became the subject of “Crip Camp.”

The camp, which was founded in 1951 and closed in 1977, was exceptional for providing disabled children with experiences so common for others, like playing classic rock and furtively making out.

It wound up producing several leaders of the disability rights movement, including others who participated in the 1977 San Francisco sit-in.

In a Q. and A. published the year of the movie’s release, The Times called Ms. Heumann “the activist star” of the film. She described the camp as a “playground,” yet she saw a larger meaning in the fun she had.

“It was a liberating time,” she said. “We could be ourselves and it absolutely helped formulate our futures.”

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