By George H. Fleischner, President/CEO, Nonotuck Resource Associates, and the Nonotuck Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging Committee
The world changed forever in 1970 when Judy Heumann—a Polio survivor who used a wheelchair to get around—sued the state of New York for the right to teach. Told that her wheelchair was a fire hazard that disqualified her from doing the job (the same excuse used to bar her from admission to public schools years earlier), Heumann settled with the state of New York and became the first wheelchair user to teach in New York.
We lost a pivotal figure in the fight for disability equality this weekend when Heumann passed away at the age of 75 in Washington D.C. Recognized internationally as a leader in the disability community, she served in the Clinton and Obama administrations, as an advisor for the World Bank, and served on the boards of countless nonprofits.
First and foremost, though, she was an activist.
Born in Brooklyn in 1947 to German immigrant parents, Heumann contracted polio at 18 months, necessitating the use of a wheelchair for most of her life. She was inspired to pursue activism after the aforementioned struggles for equality in both schooling and employment, and deluge of support she received. She founded the group Disabled in Action, became a founding member of the Berkeley Center for Independent Living and helped to launch the Independent Living Movement both nationally and globally. She also co-founded the World Institute on Disability in 1983.
While serving as a legislative assistant to the chairperson of the U.S. Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare in 1974, she helped develop legislation that became the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which helped to provide equal opportunity for people with disabilities in public schools. She would go on to be instrumental in the development and implementation of further legislation, such as Section 504, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Most recently, she was featured prominently in the 2020 Oscar-nominated documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution, which explores issues of identity at a summer camp for children with disabilities in upstate New York. Heumann attended the camp during summers from the age of 8, eventually becoming a counselor there.
Given that March is both Women’s History Month and Disability Awareness Month, there’s no better time to recognize and celebrate the contributions of a true pioneer and trailblazer.
Learn how Nonotuck developed a love-based ideology of care. We started our shared living program as an alternative to group homes for people with disabilities. Instead, Shared Living creates genuine life transformation for people with disabilities, as well as families and communities. The true power of caregiving is found through hospitality, authenticity, and love.