The enduring legacy of Judith Heumann [video]

Judith Heumann smiling in wheelchair at end of indoor ramp (D.A. Peterson/State Dept.)
Judith Heumann spent more than 50 years fighting for disability rights. (D.A. Peterson/State Dept.)

Pioneering activist for the rights of people with disabilities Judith Heumann died Saturday, March 4. During her career, Heumann lobbied for legislation that eventually led to the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, among other laws that support the rights of people with disabilities.

In 2015, Heumann — then the U.S. Department of State’s special adviser for international disability rights — wrote for ShareAmerica about the educational rights of people with disabilities.

Read more about Judith Heumann and the advancement of disability rights.

Growing up in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, I wasn’t allowed to go to school until fourth grade because I used a wheelchair and was unable to walk.

But my parents were adamant that I get an education equal to my brothers’ so I could support myself if I never married (women were not typically breadwinners back then). They teamed up with other parents to force some of the local secondary schools to become accessible to students with disabilities.

Later, I battled successfully to be the first person in a wheelchair to teach in New York and taught there for three years.

Education is a great equalizer: It opens opportunities for girls and boys, for disadvantaged people and especially for people, like me, who have disabilities.

Hamza Jaka and Amber Buckley-Shaklee, two students with disabilities, worked as interns at the U.S. Department of State. Their stories indicate that inclusive education is moving forward.

Both Hamza and Amber have always attended integrated schools, as required under laws that didn’t exist when I was in school. Hamza, who graduated from the University of California Berkeley in 2014, was resented by peers who thought the accommodations he received (such as having a computer for spelling tests) were unfair. And Amber, a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, had friends at nearby schools who were told they could come to school, but only if they didn’t bring their wheelchairs.

Parents and students need to know their rights. In the United States there are Parent Information Centers that help. Also, after years of implementation of our laws, more students with disabilities are graduating from secondary school and entering work or higher education.

We have come a long way since I had polio in 1949, and we have far to go. Our laws are not always enforced as they should be. As I work for equality and the advancement of human rights, I want to teach this lesson: People with disabilities should have the same rights and opportunities as all people. Granted these, we can and do improve our communities, our country and the world.

This article was originally published June 18, 2015.