Judith Heumann to NYU grads: ‘Disability is difference. It is not deficiency.’

Judith Heumann spoke about COVID-19 and disability activism at the combined commencement ceremony for the classes of 2020 and 2021. The in-person commencement ceremonies for these classes were canceled due to the pandemic.


Manasa Gudavalli

Judith Heumann waves to the crowd while on stage after delivering her speech during NYU’s commencement ceremony for the classes of 2020 and 2021. (Staff Photo by Manasa Gudavalli)

Rachel Fadem, Features Editor

Disability rights activist Judith Heumann addressed NYU’s classes of 2020 and 2021 at the university’s 189th commencement ceremony after she received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters. She spoke on behalf of the ceremony’s three honorary doctorate recipients — Smithsonian Institution secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III, author and historian Jill Lepore, and herself.

Faye Ginsburg, the co-chair of NYU’s Center for Disability Studies, presented Heumann with her degree. NYU president Andrew Hamilton spoke about Heumann’s achievements.

“Your accomplishments exemplify what one person can do to galvanize communities, launch a multifaceted movement, embed its values in legislation and energize democracy in action,” Hamilton said.

Heumann began by speaking about the scope of the disability advocacy movement and thanking her fellow honorees for keeping people informed and for elevating the voices of those who have been devalued or discriminated against.

“This movement is made up of thousands of people, and you are many of them,” Heumann said. “No one person ever creates a movement. Remember that.”

Heumann spoke about how the pandemic created life-altering disruptions to everyone’s lives. She acknowledged that Wednesday’s commencement ceremony was unique as most graduates have already moved on from NYU.

The pandemic had an outsized impact on people with disabilities, many of whom lost access to personal assistance and services, and were unable to make decisions about their healthcare or be with loved ones.

“Suddenly the world felt much smaller and a lot quieter,” she said. “And then came what we in the disability community feared — disabled people dying because our lives were considered less worthy of treatment.”

We reached out to each other, and to our allies, and we mobilized across communities to make change, to benefit and include everyone in society.

— Judith Heumann, on the disability community

While Heumann said it may have been easier for the disability community to feel powerless and overwhelmed by the setbacks, they knew there was work to be done. As a result of the activism of the community and its allies, laws that protect disabled people were enforced more strictly and society began to embrace accessible technology, which disabled people have been advocates of for years.

“We’re used to people telling us there are no solutions, and then creating our own,” she said. “So we did what we do best. We reached out to each other, and to our allies, and we mobilized across communities to make change, to benefit and include everyone in society.”

Maddie Jewell, a Tisch graduate of the class of 2020, said they appreciated how Heumann acknowledged this was not a typical graduation ceremony. Jewell was excited that Heumann was their speaker and was able to impart wisdom based on her life.

Judith Heumann, wearing violet academic robes and red spectacles, enters Yankee Stadium during NYU's commencement ceremony for the classes of 2020 and 2021. She smiles and controls her wheelchair with one hand. Faye Ginsburg is on her left, wearing a black robe and smiling. A crowd of graduates are in the stands in the background.
Judith Heumann, left, and Faye Ginsburg, right, co-chair the NYU Center for Disability Studies, move to the stage at Yankee Stadium during the classes of 2020 and 2021 commencement exercises. (Staff Photo by Manasa Gudavalli)

“It was a lot more helpful than a more stereotypical [speech] would have been for me personally,” Jewell said. “NYU hasn’t always been great to student protesters or student activists, so to have someone who’s led protests really speaking to us directly was really nice.”

Elizabeth Hamilton, a 2020 CAS alum, said Heumann’s address was beautifully written and that she appreciated how Heumann wove her personal experiences into the speech.

“She had clearly put so much thought and intention behind everything she was saying,” Hamilton said. “I was really really excited to hear her speak and she still blew my expectations out of the water.”

Although she acknowledged the difficulties of the past few years, Heumann encouraged the crowd to recognize that the pandemic has made them stronger. Heumann said she is excited for the world that graduates are shaping with their creativity, diversity and power. 

“As we muddle our way through the daily challenges of life, please know — and I know you believe — that you are up to those challenges,” Heumman said. “I wish you strength and good fortune as you move forward with your lives. And remember, never take for granted that you too have your part to play in weaving the strands of that single garment of destiny.”

Contact Rachel Fadem at [email protected].