To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Disability rights activist Judy Heumann’s legacy

Earlier this month, famed disability activist Judy Heumann passed away. She was “regarded as ‘the mother’ of the disability rights movement,” according to her website, and played an instrumental role in the movement to reimagine “what it means to be disabled,” according to NPR.

After contracting polio at 18 months of age, Heumann used a wheelchair for mobility. However, she was quoted as saying “Disability only becomes a tragedy for me when society fails to provide the things we need to lead our lives––job opportunities or barrier-free buildings, for example. It is not a tragedy to me that I’m living in a wheelchair,” according to NPR. Heumann had to fight to attend school and to later become an educator, with school districts citing her wheelchair as a fire hazard to prevent her from entering the world of education, according to Save the Children. She also led “sit-ins and protests that ultimately led to the passage of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the first disability civil rights law to be enacted in the U.S.” As an unbent tree in the fight for disability rights, Heumann was called “a legend” by members of Brandeis’ faculty during an event she gave on the university’s campus.

For nearly a decade, Heumann attended Camp Jened each summer. This camp was specifically for children with disabilities, and provided Heumann with a heightened awareness of the shared experiences of disabled people. She mentioned that “We had the same joy together, the same anger over the way we were treated and the same frustrations at opportunities we didn’t have.”

In the course of her life of activism, Heumann created “Crip Camp,” a documentary describing her time at Camp Jened. The film follows how the camp “[galvanized] a group of teens with disabilities to help build a movement, forging a new path toward greater equality,” according to the film’s description on Netflix. In a 2022 Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Zoom event, Heumann added that “Crip Camp” is “a film that will stand the test of time.” Heumann added that at six separate viewings of the film, “she ‘heard over and over, ‘how come we haven’t heard this story yet?’” At this same Hadassah-Brandeis Institute event, Heumann said “On reflecting on what social justice means for us in the disability community, we really have to look at disability more deeply, we can’t avoid it.”

Heumann’s Zoom event a year ago wasn’t her only appearance at Brandeis, though. Together with Sandy Ho—a research associate at The Heller School’s Lurie Institute for Disability Policy—she spoke about the “state of disability activism and its movement into the future,” according to the Lurie Institute’s website. During this talk, Heumann spoke about the importance of diversity in activism, the importance of prioritizing the quality of life for disabled people and the stigma surrounding disabilities. The recording of the event can be viewed on the Lurie Institute’s website.

Heumann’s funeral was held on Wednesday, March 8, in Washington D.C. She has left behind a legacy of passionate activism and care for disabled people everywhere.

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