Judith Heumann, disability rights activist who spoke at NYU graduation, dies at 75

A trailblazer in the disability rights movement, Judith Heumann passed away in Washington, D.C. on Saturday afternoon.


Manasa Gudavalli

File photo: Judith Heumann at NYU’s commencement in May 2022. (Manasa Gudavalli for WSN)

Arnav Binaykia and Bruna Horvath

Judith Heumann, a dedicated advocate known by many as the “mother” of the disability rights movement, died on March 4 in Washington, D.C., at the age of 75. The cause of her death was not immediately made public.

In the 1990s, Heumann played a pivotal role in shaping legislation that banned discrimination against people with disabilities and mandated accommodations in public life, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

She was a trailblazer throughout her life as the first wheelchair user to teach at a public school in New York, the first advisor to the World Bank on disability and development, and the first Special Advisor for International Disability Rights in the U.S. Department of State, appointed by President Barack Obama. She also served as the assistant secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services in the Department of Education, under President Bill Clinton. 

Last year, Heumann spoke to thousands of graduates of NYU’s graduating classes of 2020 and 2021 at Yankee Stadium, as part of a combined commencement ceremony for students whose final year in college was affected by the pandemic. She was also awarded an honorary doctorate by the university. Speaking to a WSN reporter days before her commencement speech, she said she was surprised and honored that she had been chosen to deliver remarks, and admitted that putting her speech together was a “daunting thought.”

On the day of the commencement ceremony, introducing her before she began her speech, Faye Ginsburg, an anthropology professor at the university and the co-director of its Center for Disability Studies, described Heumann as “an amazing and unrepentant badass.”

Heumann spoke about the outsized impact of the pandemic on people with disabilities and the power and scope of the disability advocacy movement. She also conveyed her excitement and optimism for the world her audience of new graduates will go on to shape.

“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 at the ceremony. “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.”

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Heumann graduated from Long Island University in 1969 before attending the University of California, Berkeley, where she earned a Master of Science in public health in 1975.

At two years old, Heumann contracted polio, causing her to lose the ability to walk. She was denied early elementary education, as the school she attended believed that she was a “fire hazard.” Later in life, she was refused a teaching license — the New York City Board of Education claimed that Heumann was “physically and medically unsuited for teaching.” In response, Heumann sued the Board of Education in 1970, and later became the first wheelchair user to become a teacher in New York.

In 1983, she co-founded the World Institute on Disability, one of the first global disability rights organizations. The nonprofit grassroots corporation worked as a research and resource center for people with disabilities. In 2020, Heumann was named one of 100 women who defined the last century.

Heumann also took part in the Oscar-nominated Netflix documentary “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution,” in which she shared her experiences at Camp Jened, a summer camp in New York for people with disabilities. The camp acted as a foundation for many future disability rights activists like Heumann. The documentary premiered in 2020 in the Sundance Film Festival, winning the Audience Award. It also went on to win awards including the Peabody documentary award and the Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary. 

Heumann’s death was first announced in a press release published on her website.

Contact Arnav Binaykia and Bruna Horvath at [email protected].