The U.S. Access Board mourns the passing of Judy Heumann, an internationally recognized disability rights leader. Over the span of five decades, Judy was instrumental in the development and implementation of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. She also contributed to the founding of the Berkeley Center for Independent Living, the Independent Living Movement, and the World Institute on Disability. Judy passed away on March 4, 2023 in Washington, D.C.
“Not only was Judy a fierce advocate that led the disability rights movement, but she was also a personal friend and mentor to me and many in the disability community,” remarked Access Board Executive Director Sachin Pavithran. “Judy taught us by example to not stop advocating for our rights, to never take no for an answer, and that collectively we could get more accomplished to remove barriers. All her lessons will help us continue her legacy.”
In 1949, Judy contracted polio and began to use a wheelchair for her mobility. At the age of five, she was denied the right to attend school because she was considered a “fire hazard” and, later in life, denied her teaching license after passing her oral and written exams. Judy sued the New York Board of Education and went on to become the first wheelchair user to become a teacher in the state.
Judy’s activism led to various events that helped secure legislation protecting the rights of people with disabilities. In 1977, Judy spearheaded a 26-day sit-in at a San Francisco federal building to protest the refusal of the U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare to sign long-delayed regulations for Section 504, which specified that no government agency or private business that accepted federal funds could discriminate and exclude people with disabilities. Section 504 became a model for the ADA, extending the principles of non-discrimination to all public accommodations, employment, transportation, and communications and access to state and local government programs.
From 1993 to 2001, Judy served in the Clinton administration as an Assistant Secretary in the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services in the Department of Education. In this role, she was also a federal member of the Access Board, including her time as Chair in 1994 and 1996. In 2010, she was appointed Special Adviser on International Disability Rights by then-President Barack Obama, and would serve in this role over the next seven years as she worked to include disability in the department’s agenda and to pass an international treaty similar to the ADA.
Judy also published Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist and Rolling Warrior, and was featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution.
President Joe Biden released a statement on Judy’s passing and Vice-President Kamala Harris made a statement. Each acknowledged Judy’s lifelong dedication to disability rights and paving the way for the inherent dignity and inclusion of people with disabilities in society.
The Access Board sends its condolences to her husband Jorge Pineda and extended family. Judy will be dearly missed. May her memory be a blessing to all of us.