Disability rights activist speaks at Brandeis

Disability rights activist speaks at Brandeis

March 8, 2019

Advocate for disability rights Judy Heumann spoke about the importance of integrating disability into education and improving accessibility to a packed hall of students and others working in the field of accessibility on Thursday night.

Heumann, who is in a wheelchair due to having polio as a child, has served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations and as Special Advisor on Disability Rights for the U.S. State Department from 2010 to early 2017.

Heumann became an activist in college where she organized a 28-day sit-in at the San Francisco office of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. During this sit-in, Heumann advocated for the enactment of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and succeeded. The act paved the way for the American Disabilities Act (ADA), according to Heumann.

Her activism in San Francisco was dramatized on an episode of Comedy Central’s “Drunk History,” which Heumann presented and then spoke about during her talk. The Comedy Central piece expressed the challenges persons with disabilities faced in getting jobs and being treated equally under the law and in society.

Heumann spoke about the actress who played her in the Comedy Central episode, Ali Stroker, who has a disability and is the first woman with a disability to perform on Broadway. Heumann used this to illustrate the importance of portraying persons with disabilities in the media.

Heumann was interviewed by Sandy Ho, a research associate with the Lurie Institute for Disability Policy, who asked Heumann about different issues including how social movements affect public policy and how best to integrate disability into a larger higher education curriculum—including in fields such as urban planning and transportation.

Heumann emphasized that disability should be considered a part of diversity and should be integrated into higher education.

“We really want to be learning about how disability should be being integrated into the curriculum,” Heumann said. “We need to be looking at where are the disabled faculty and the diversity of the disabled faculty so that the diversity reflects race, gender, sexuality, sexual orientation.”

“That’s something that needs to be proactive and I think the movement is heading in that direction,” she said.

Heumann emphasized that disability needs to be at the forefront of conversations on urban planning, transportation and even climate change, which is causing more people to live with disabilities, she said.

Heumann also took questions from the audience, which included scholars on disability and disability activism, professionals from neighboring colleges and Brandeis students.

Emily Dana ’19 asked Heumann what the best advice was for an activist staring out their career. Dana contributed to an earlier letter to President Liebowitz that called for more accessibility on campus, according to an earlier article in The Brandeis Hoot.

Heumann told Dana that organizing was the most important factor. “I think the university should be welcoming of these issues,” Heumann said. She continued, “504 has required accessibility since 1973 and it’s 2019. I think you know people need to come together and do an honest assessment of where they are.”

The talk itself was very accessible. Live closed-captions of the lecture were projected onto a screen behind Heumann, and two sign language translators translated throughout the lecture. The talk was also videotaped to be later released by the Lurie Institute.

Heumann also told Dana that the university is a great environment to produce change and encouraged her to articulate her message and work collaboratively.

Speaking about Brandeis specifically, Heumann encouraged Brandeis community members to “Look at what Brandeis is doing to really elevate diversity and inclusion beyond just accessibility and addressing disability and what role Brandeis can play in academic community around the United States.”

Heumann also responded to a question about the future of disability activism, saying that the community is becoming more inclusive of others with disabilities, including older community members and members with non-physical disabilities.

At the end of the talk, Heumann was presented with a plaque from the Lurie Institute of Disability Policy for her past activism and her leadership in civil rights.

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