Judith Heumann on NYU Commencement and Disability Activism

Disability rights activist Judith Heumann will speak about the importance of political action and advocacy during a combined graduation ceremony for the classes of 2020 and 2021 on May 18.

Judith Heumann sits in a warmly lit room holding up two of her books, "Being Heumann" and "Rolling Warrior." She is wearing a blue top with floral embroidery. In the background, two vases sit on a shelf and a lamp can be seen.

(Image courtesy of Judith Heumann)

Judith Heumann, considered “the mother” of the disability rights movement, has played a major role in passing the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The renowned disability rights activist will address the class of 2020 and 2021 in a combined commencement ceremony on May 18. She will also receive an honorary doctorate of humane letters.

“I was very surprised and honored that I was selected to receive an honorary doctorate, and then to be asked to give remarks given the other people who were also getting honorary doctorates,” Heumann said. “As I’ll say in my opening remarks, it’s kind of a daunting thought about putting remarks together.”

In 2020, TIME Magazine named Heumann as the 1977 woman of the year. During that year, she pressured the national government to pass the ADA after leading a 28-day sit-in inside of a San Francisco federal building. In 1970, she became the first teacher in New York state to use a wheelchair after winning a lawsuit against its Board of Education. Heumann also founded the civil rights organization Disabled In Action and co-founded the nonprofit World Institute on Disability. 

Since then, Heumann has served in the Barack Obama and Bill Clinton administrations, released her memoir “Being Heumann” and been featured in “Crip Camp” — a documentary about the summer camp for teenagers with disabilities that Heumann attended when she was younger. She currently hosts “The Heumann Perspective,” a podcast where she speaks to disabled activists and their allies.

John DiLillo, a CAS class of 2020 graduate, recognized Heumann’s name from “Crip Camp” and is excited that she will be speaking at his commencement.

“Heumann has done so much meaningful work in her long career,” he told WSN. “She’s lived an amazing life and I can’t wait to hear what advice and wisdom she has to offer to the classes of 2020 and 2021.”

Now, you’re the adults, and you’re the ones who will be most impacted long term on the successes or failures of the policies that we choose as a country.”

— Judith Heumann

A black-and-white picture of Judith Heumann speaking in front of a microphone. On her jacket, there is a pin that reads “Sign 504.”
A black-and-white picture of Judith Heumann at a protest holding a sign that reads, "No more negotiations, sign 504." Other people attending the protest are behind Heumann in the background. One protester holds a sign that says "Our biggest handicap is Califano," while a man holds a megaphone up for them to speak.

(Images courtesy of Judith Heumann)

Graduation is an important moment of transition, and Heumann encourages graduates to fully embrace their roles as the next generation of leaders and to challenge global issues. She emphasized the urgency in taking action against issues such as climate change and the threat of the Roe v. Wade abortion rights judgement being struck down.

“When you’re younger, you’re relying on your families to do things for you for the future,” she said. “But now, you’re the adults, and you’re the ones who will be most impacted long term on the successes or failures of the policies that we choose as a country.”

Heumann plans to speak about the successes of the disability rights movement, especially during COVID-19, while emphasizing the work that still needs to be done. She said that during the pandemic, the movement played a large role in preventing ableist policies — such as people with disabilities being placed last for medical care — and pushing back against ableism.

Although the disability rights movement grew in size and awareness over the past two years, ableism remained prevalent across all areas of life. DiLillo said he believes that Heumann and the work that she has done can show NYU students the importance of supporting their peers with disabilities.

“The amount of blood, sweat, and tears that goes into winning the bare minimum of human dignity in this country is shameful,” he said. “Fighting for something as simple as the ability to enter a public building via a ramp should not be necessary, but Heumann and her colleagues have fought for those rights anyway.”

Going forward, Heumann encourages students to not only focus on themselves, but on helping the lives of those around them. While her work centers around disability activism and representation, she hopes that her speech will inspire people to advocate for other marginalized groups.

“What we are learning more broadly is that disability cuts across all categories of life,” she said. “That many people have invisible disabilities, and that people acquire their disabilities across life expectancy. Supporting efforts that we’re making as disabled people today will benefit you whether or not you have a disability.”

Judy being one of the commencement speakers is important because it goes to show the impact people with disabilities have in human rights.”

— Sg Guerrero, NYU senior and Gallatin Disability Collective co-founder

Gallatin senior Sg Guerrero, who co-founded the Gallatin Disability Collective at NYU, said that although people who do not engage in disability-related work may be unaware of Heumann, she is an important figure whose accomplishments should be recognized.

“Judy being one of the commencement speakers is important because it goes to show the impact people with disabilities have in human rights, and allows people to be aware that even in prestigious spaces everyone should be included and celebrated,” they wrote to WSN.

Some students are upset that Taylor Swift — who will be addressing the class of 2022 earlier in the day — was selected as a commencement speaker alongside Heumann. DiLillo believes that it was disrespectful for NYU to create a situation where people would compare Heumann to one of the most famous people in the world.

“To have her speak at only one commencement opened up an opportunity for complaint and comparison from students who may not even know about her long history of activism,” he said. “It was deeply disappointing to me to see peers trying to trade tickets to get into Swift’s commencement address instead of Heumann’s.”

Even if people do not know who she is before coming to commencement, Heumann hopes they will resonate with what she has to say.

“In no way should there be a comparison of Taylor Swift and Judy Heumann,” Heumann said. “We’re totally different people, we’re making totally different contributions. I respect and value the work that she’s doing. And for those of you who really like her work, she makes great music.”

Although Silver senior Leo Bukovsan will be unable to attend the commencement ceremony where Heumann is addressing the graduates, he has seen how many of his classmates dismiss people with disabilities and their experiences — especially during the pandemic. He believes it is important for NYU students to hear a disability advocate speak.

“A lot of students don’t realize the kind of work that she’s done that does impact them,” Bukovsan said. “There’s probably a lot of students who are able to get [dormitory single rooms]. That’s largely because of her and the ADA. People who are getting accommodations on testing, like longer test times, extensions, that is obviously not only her, but she was a big part of that.”

Heumann calls on graduates from the classes of 2020 and 2021 to use this moment of transition as an opportunity to grow stronger.

“We need to come together in order to make a difference,” she said. “We have individual issues — discrimination, lack of opportunities, whatever it may be. But at the end of the day, what is great is the ability for people to come together and believe that we can make a difference. I think that ‘we’ is what’s so important.”

Contact Rachel Fadem at [email protected]

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