Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

NCD remembers the life, impact of Judith Heumann

Monday, March 6, 2023

March 6, 2023

WASHINGTON–The National Council on Disability remembers the life and impact of Judith E. Heumann, 75, who died Saturday.

Heumann was a trailblazer who left an indelible mark for her advocacy in support of people with disabilities, calling out discrimination, aggressively protesting for disability rights, and citing her own experiences in furthering equity. She also befriended and mentored numerous NCD Council Members and staff.

“Judy was an icon in the disability rights movement and the independent living movement,” said NCD Chairman Andrés Gallegos. “Judy knew how to make a fuss, and for that millions of Americans and people with disabilities throughout the world are better off.”

“Judy was one of my mentors when I was in my late teens and early 20s,” said Council Member Sascha Bittner. “She really helped me develop pride in the disability community. Through her, I learned how to be a fierce disabled activist, while working with others for policy change. I am devastated by this loss but will try to live up to her example of being an advocate who can work inside and outside the government for the rights of disabled people.”

“Judy was a giant in the disability community, but also someone who always had time to help me, and anyone, when she was asked for guidance,” said Council Member Neil Romano.

After contracting polio in early childhood, Heumann faced repeated institutional barriers in achieving an education as a wheelchair user.

At the start of school years, the local public school refused to let her attend because of her disability, but her parents demanded she have access to classroom instruction, which eventually came.

Later, as a college student, she organized students with disabilities to fight for ramped buildings and founded Disability in Action.

And as an educator, she fought for and ultimately sued for her right to a teacher’s license, becoming the first person in a wheelchair hired to teach in New York City. As a result, laws started changing to protect the disabled against employment discrimination.

Her advocacy was instrumental in securing passage and implementation of the Rehabilitation Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

In 1974, she gained exposure to legislative work as the legislative assistant to the Chairperson of the U.S. Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, working on development of Public Law 94-142, the Rehabilitation Amendments Act of 1974 and accessible transportation legislation.

She was a founding member of the Berkeley Center for Independent Living, the first grassroots center in the United States and helped to launch the independent living movement–both nationally and globally. Her work was instrumental in developing and passing federal and state legislation to fund independent living centers around the U.S.

In 1977, she organized a San Francisco federal building sit-in protest lasting almost a month that forced the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare to sign drafted regulations for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

She served as Special Assistant to the Executive Director at the California State Department of Rehabilitation where she developed statewide educational programs on disability issues, including architectural barriers and Section 504.

During the Clinton Administration, she was assistant secretary of Education at the department’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) from 1993 to 2001.

She served as the World Bank’s first adviser on disability and development and founded the World Institute on Disability.

During the Obama Administration, she was Special Advisor for International Disability Rights at the U.S. State Department from 2010 to 2017.

NCD mourns her loss and sends condolences to Judy’s husband, Jorge Pineda, and their entire family.

Memorial service information is available on her website.

An official website of the National Council on Disability