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Remembering alumna and disability rights advocate Judy Heumann

Judith “Judy’ Heumann, who received her MS from UC Berkeley School of Public Health in 1975 and who the school lauded in 2000 as one of 16 women who changed the face of public health, died March 4, 2023, at the age of 75. Heumann was named Alumna of the Year in 1981.

Heumann’s work as an advocate for Americans with disabilities led to the mainstreaming of disability rights advocacy and to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Her obituary in the New York Times said she “spent decades attacking a political establishment indifferent to the rights of disabled people and won one fight after another, ultimately joining and reforming the very establishment she once inveighed against.”

A remembrance posted to Berkeley’s Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund said, “She was among the group of disabled people who understood disability as a social issue, how ableism shows up as discrimination, and the need for disability civil rights.”

Born in 1947, Heumann contracted polio as a baby and subsequently used a wheelchair. She became an activist after the New York City board of education rejected her application for a teaching license, calling her a fire hazard because of her wheelchair usage. She sued and won, becoming the first wheelchair user to teach in New York public schools.

After earning her MS, she became the deputy director for Berkeley’s Center for Independent Living from 1975 to 1982. She was an early adopter of the Independent Living Movement. In 1977, Heumann helped organize the legendary 28-day 504 Sit-In in front of San Francisco’s federal building to protest lack of follow-through for federal civil rights legislation for disabled people. She eventually became assistant secretary of education for special education and rehabilitative services under President Bill Clinton and later special advisor on international disability rights under President Barack Obama.

Her memoir, Being Heumann, published in 2020, told her “personal story of fighting for the right to receive an education, have a job, and just be human” and was lauded by everyone from Gloria Steinem to Hillary Clinton. She was also featured in the Oscar-nominated 2020 documentary Crip Camp, which documented Camp Jened, a camp for teens with physical disabilities, in the early 1970s.

Her impact was enormous and we offer our condolences to her husband, Jorge Pineda, her brothers Ricky and Joseph, and all of those who found inspiration and empowerment in her work.