Polio Place

A service of Post-Polio Health International

Judith Ellen Heumann

Born: December 18, 1947

Major Contribution:

Judith E. Heumann is an American disability rights activist and an internationally recognized leader in the disability community. After 30-plus years working as an activist, Heumann advocates that “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.”(1) She continues to be one of the world’s leading voices focusing on the rights and independence of all persons with disabilities.

Other Information:

Brief Biography: Judith E. Heumann's commitment to disability rights stems from her personal experiences. Having contracted polio at age 18 months, she was the eldest of three children born in Brooklyn to German-Jewish immigrants. After Heumann graduated from Long Island University in 1969, she was denied her New York teaching license because the school board did not believe she could get herself or her students out of the building in case of a fire; she took the case to court—and won. The media was happy to tell the story of a qualified teacher up against bureaucracy with the headline “You Can Be President, not Teacher, with Polio”(2) Heumann became the first person in a wheelchair to teach in New York City and taught elementary school there for three years.

Heumann also gained a Master of Science degree in public health at the University of California, Berkeley in 1975. She has been awarded honorary doctorates by Long Island University in Brooklyn, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Toledo. She was the first recipient of the Henry B. Betts Award from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (later awarded jointly with the American Association of People with Disabilities).

Using a wheelchair all her life, Heumann had to fight repeatedly to be included. Her distinguished dedication to the rights of the disabled includes founding Disabled in Action (D.I.A) in 1970 which focused on securing the protection of the disabled population under civil rights laws. She quotes the group’s philosophy as “…to address our problems in a forthright, political way, to show that we were not helpless and disempowered.”(3) She served as legislative assistant to the chairperson of the U.S. Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, and in 1974 helped develop legislation that became the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. As an early leader in the Independent Living Movement, she served as deputy director of the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, California. She organized sit-ins at the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) offices in San Francisco and around the U.S., ultimately resulting in the signing of the Rehabilitation Act’s Section 504 regulations (mandating that no program receiving funds from the federal government could deny access, services, or employment to someone solely on the basis of their disability). 

In 1983, Judith Heumann co-founded the World Institute on Disability with Ed Roberts and Joan Leon, thus extending the international reach of the independent living movement. In a 1992 grant-supported study entitled, The U.S. Role in International Disability Activities: a history and a look towards the future, author Nora Groce states “…the institute and think tank run by and for people with disabilities….has increasingly become a cross-roads of international research and discussion…a major presence in the world of international disability and rehabilitation.”

Heumann served in the Clinton Administration as Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services at the US Department of Education from 1993 to 2001. Her responsibilities included creation of legislation at the national level for special education, disability research, vocational rehabilitation and independent living—serving more than 8 million youth and adults with disabilities.(4)

From 2002 to 2006 she served as the World Bank’s first Advisor on Disability and Development whose projects allowed disabled people around the world to live and work in the social and economic mainstream of their communities. She was also Lead Consultant to the Global Partnership for Disability and Development.

After the change of power to the Republican Party, she stayed in Washington, DC, as the Director of the Department of Disability Services for the District of Columbia.

From 2010-2016, Heumann served as Special Advisor on International Disability Rights for the U.S. State Department. She worked with governmental and non-governmental (NGOs) organizations to develop human rights legislation and policies to benefit children and adults with disabilities. 

Heumann now lives in Washington, D.C. and is married to Jorge Pineda.

1. Joseph S P. Shapiro, No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement (New York: Times Books, 1993)
2. Ibid.
3. Fred Pelka, The Disability Rights Movement (California: ABC-CLIO,1997)
4. From the Judith E. Heumann biography page of the U.S. Department of State website page

Location/Description of Papers:
Judith Heumann, Pioneering Disability Rights Advocate and Leader in Disabled in Action, New York: Center for Independent Living, Berkeley; World Institute on Disability; and the US Department of Education 1960s-2000, an oral history conducted by Susan Brown, David Landes, Jonathan Young in 1998-2001, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2004. 

The Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement website includes audio clip and transcript of “On demonstrating in New York against Nixon vetoing the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.”

An interview with Ms. Heumann the touches on her life and work in the disability rights movement by 16 year-old student, Samuel Habib, can be viewed here

February 2012/ Carol K. Elliott & Joan L. Headley/ Post-Polio Health International

Major Articles: Judith Ellen Heumann

High Standards for Pupils With Disabilities, Too: An article from: School Administrator by Judith E. Heumann (Jul 28, 2005) - HTML American Association of School Administrators.

Foreword (Brief Article): An article from: Bilingual Review by Judith E. Heumann (Jul 28, 2005) - HTML

Questions and answers about provisions in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997 related to students with disabilities and ... memorandum (SuDoc ED 1.310/2:450521)


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