The Legacy of Judith Heumann
A public statement honoring the life and legacy of a national treasure, revolutionary, our former board member, and friend.
Judith Heumann, a fierce advocate for disability rights, passed away on Saturday, March 4th, leaving a legacy for planners and community organizers that will continue to inspire future generations. Known for her relentless pursuit of equality, Heumann was a trailblazer in advancing lasting social change. She’s best known as the “mother” of the disability rights movement, dedicating her life to breaking down physical barriers and challenging discriminatory practices that limited the participation of persons with disabilities in virtually all aspects of public life.
Heumann’s work was grounded in her experience with discrimination and urban inaccessibility as a wheelchair user in Brooklyn. She contracted polio as a child and encountered a world with more challenges than opportunities. But rather than let her disability hold her back, she embraced it as a source of strength and inspiration, using her voice to champion the rights of others who faced similar challenges.
Showing Judith Heumann and Dr. Victor Pineda on a stroll. Judy is seen with her signature red silk Picasso jacket, rolling away forwards towards an accessible path in the woods. To her left is Victor, a wheelchair rider using a ventilator.
Over the years, Heumann’s activism took many forms and fundamentally changed the professions of planning, policy, and design. Her work on the passage of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act is legendary. This provision was fundamental to a large swath of legal changes that were to ensure. Section 504 prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability in federally-funded programs and activities. She leveraged this momentum to ensure the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), which enshrined the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education that is tailored to a student’s individual needs. She was also central to the passage of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, which enshrined sweeping and lasting fundamental civil rights and basic protections for people with disabilities into law.
But Heumann’s impact on planning and policymaking extended far beyond legislative victories. She tirelessly advocated for justice and authentic representation in all aspects of public life, from transforming the World Bank and impacting its HR, hiring, planning, operations, and strategy to its work on technical assistance and disability-inclusive development policy. Recognizing the power of community development, media, and public campaigns in shaping public attitudes and perceptions, she took a central role in reshaping the public narrative around disability. A narrative that she extended as the State Department’s first Senior Advisor for International Disability Rights. In this role she sought to ensure that the US’s foreign affairs and foreign assistance programs engaged with and uplifted the voices of persons with disabilities.
Through her work at the Ford Foundation and the critically-acclaimed and Oscar-nominated documentary “Crip Camp,” she worked to amplify the voices of underrepresented groups and promote intersectionality in the disability rights movement. Many of us describe Heumann as “a force to be reckoned with”, or a tsunami of passion and determination. But for those who knew her personally, she was also a kind, generous, and loving friend. Her loss is keenly felt by all who knew her, but her life and accomplishments will continue to inspire and motivate us to work toward a more just and equitable future for all.
As we mourn the passing of Judith Heumann, let us also honor her by continuing the work to which she dedicated her life. Now is the time to build on her legacy. We are the bearers of her torch. We must uplift the voices of persons with disabilities with intersectional identities, advance partnerships with all underrepresented communities, and fostering a world where everyone has the opportunity to thrive.
Please honor Judith Heumann by learning more about her and encouraging your colleagues and communities to: