Judy Heumann, disability rights activist, ‘Crip Camp’ star dead at 75
Judy Heumann, disability rights activist and star of Oscar-nominated doc Crip Camp, dies at 75
For her lifelong advocacy, Heumann was known as the “mother of the disability rights movement.”
Lester Fabian Brathwaite
Judy Heumann, celebrated disability rights activist whose lifelong advocacy eventually led to passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, has died. She was 75.
Heumann worked under the Clinton and Obama administrations, and was featured in the Obama-produced, Oscar-nominated documentary Crip Camp, detailing the campers turned activists of Camp Jened in the 1970s.
SLUG: ME_HEUMANN4 DATE: 05/18/2007 PHOTOGRAPHER: Sarah L. Voisin Washington, DC NEG #: 190924 Judy Heumann, new acting director of DC’s new Department of Disability Services in her office. (Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Judy Heumann, disability rights activist and star of Oscar-nominated doc ‘Crip Camp,’ dies at 75
| Credit: Sarah L. Voisin/The The Washington Post via Getty
Born in Brooklyn in 1947, Neumann developed polio at 18 months, causing her to use a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Heumann’s fight for inclusion began early, as she was denied enrollment in public schools, her wheelchair cited as a fire hazard.
From the ages of nine to 18, Heumann attended Camp Jened, a summer camp for disabled teens in the Catskills of New York run by self-professed hippies. “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,” Heumann said of the experience.
Heumann’s work as an activist started in earnest in 1970 when she was denied a teaching license by New York City’s Board of Education, her wheelchair, again, being scapegoated as a fire hazard. Heumann sued the Board of Education, and without going to trial, she became the first wheelchair user to teach in the city.
In 1977, Heumann led the 504 sit-in at San Francisco’s Health, Education, and Welfare building, as part of sit-ins across the country protesting the federal government’s failure to enforce the legislation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The Rehabilitation Act, a forerunner of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, was the first U.S. federal civil rights protection for people with disabilities.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – MAY 20: Judy Heumann attends the 2022 Women’s Entrepreneurship Day Organization Summit at United Nations on May 20, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Chance Yeh/Getty Images)
Judy Heumann in 2022
| Credit: Chance Yeh/Getty
Along with 80 activists, and with a little help from the Black Panthers, Heumann staged a sit-in for 25 days, the longest sit-in at a federal building to date. As a result, regulations were passed enforcing the Rehabilitation Act. She would later serve as an advisor on disability rights to the Clinton administration, the World Bank, and the Obama administration.
Heuamnn’s tireless advocacy led to her being widely considered “the mother of the disability rights movement,” the American Association of People with Disabilities wrote in a press release.
In 2020, Heumann was featured in the documentary Crip Camp, produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions, following how campers at Jened were inspired and invigorated by their time there and went on the become activists in their own right. The film was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 2021 Academy Awards, winning the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival the previous year.
“At Sundance, the response from people in the audience was very significant. They didn’t understand why they didn’t know…that there was a civil rights movement in the disability community, or anything about its evolution,” Heumann told EW in 2020. “I think the film is really important in relation to advancing these discussions.”
The Obamas remembered Heumann on social media, writing, “Judy Heumann dedicated her life to the fight for civil rights — starting as a young organizer at Camp Jened and later helping lead the disability rights movement. Michelle and I were fortunate to work with Judy over the years, and are thinking of her family and friends.”
According to The Hollywood Reporter, Heumann was attached to executive produce an adaptation of her 2020 memoir, Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist, for Apple Original Films, directed by CODA‘s Siân Heder.
“Some people say that what I did changed the world,” Heumann once wrote, “but really, I simply refused to accept what I was told about who I could be. And I was willing to make a fuss about it.”
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