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Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Judith Heumann and the Disability Rights Movement

“Civil rights” usually referred to the fight against racial segregation.  In several ways, this struggle set the template for other civil rights issues, including disability rights. First, cases such as Brown v. Board of Education demonstrated that disadvantaged groups could gain protections in the courts.  Second, movement leaders found that nonviolent protests could gain public sympathy and put pressure on elected officials. Third, civil rights statutes that helped African Americans would also point to means by which the government could protect other excluded groups. 

Judith Heumann, a founder of the modern disability rights movement, recently passed away.  Sara Luterman at The 19th:
Ari Ne’eman, 35, is a doctoral candidate at Harvard, studying health policy. He co-founded the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, one of the largest organizations run by and for autistic adults in the United States. He and Heumann were close friends — she gave one of the traditional seven Jewish blessings at his wedding.

“She was someone you could always call and shoot the breeze with, someone who always wanted to know what was going on in your life,” Ne’eman said, noting that her interest was genuine.

“D.C. is a town that is very frequently transactional,” he continued. “Judy wasn’t one to approach relationships from a transactional perspective. She was a connector. She wanted people who wanted similar things to be connected with one another. But it was very easy to talk about nothing specific and leave the conversation feeling very happy.”

He recently interviewed Heumann for a forthcoming book on disability history in the United States. During that interview, he asked Heumann how she wanted to be remembered by historians.

He shared the recording with The 19th, and in it, Heumann stressed that she wanted to be remembered as a “fighter for the rights of disabled people,” but also emphasized the need for the movement to remain dynamic.

“I believe more and more that our movement can’t be isolated. That we need to be part of a changing world. We have to look at issues like global warming and the environment. I think you have to be in a position where you’re ahead of the game and not trying to catch up to a game that keeps changing,” Heumann said.