No amount of words fully represent the behemoth of a woman Judith (Judy) Heumann was, yet, so many describe her perfectly. Trailblazer, advocate, sassy, strong, fierce, independent, resilient, resistant, powerful, force… I could go on. The following statements serve to remember Judy all the way from Iowa. Many of us never met Judy, but her life impacts us all and always will.
From Disability Rights Iowa: A Tribute to Judy Heumann.
I was one of the lucky in the masses of people to meet Judy Heumann. I was 22 and in college working in a Disability Resource Center and I met her over the phone. As soon as she answered the phone she asked if I had a disability – something I would soon become accustomed to whenever Judy met someone new for the first time. I responded with “Yeah, I have depression but its not that bad so…” and Judy, the firecracker advocate for disability rights and representation scolded me. She was right of course, she wanted to know if I thought that everyone who had less severe depression than me didn’t get to say they had a disability because I had arbitrarily decided my depression wasn’t that severe. She was, to say the least, influential on me and my life. For the short amount of time, I was able to call Judy a colleague I learned a lot, I listened, and I got to share with her the experience of being disabled – something she inspired me to proudly acknowledge and wear boldly. I got to call Judy a friend. There isn’t a part of life as a person with a disability that Judy didn’t impress her strong will upon. So many of our rights are due to the hard work of Judy and so many of her friends and colleagues. I know that my life was impacted by that first interaction I had with her on a personal level, and I know that her life impacted my place in society. Judy is the reason I am seen and represented. Her passing leaves an enormous hole in the disability rights community, but to bring solace I remember Judy’s faith, where when someone passes the phrase “May her memory be a blessing” is spoken. Her memory is a blessing today and always. Thank you, Judy.
While I never got to meet Judy I have been fortunate enough to benefit personally and professionally from the outcomes of her tireless and fierce advocacy. As a disability rights attorney I rely on the anti-discrimination laws that Judy and other disability civil rights activists and supporters fought for with their lives decades ago. The legal protections for individuals with disabilities are stronger because of Judy and her ability to inspire a groundswell of dedication and passion in the disability community and beyond. Judy achieved so much in her lifetime. The full impact of Judy’s efforts won’t be realized for many years, but I feel that one of her greatest legacies is the generations of disability advocates empowered and inspired by her who will continue the fight.
On March 4, 2023, I laid on my friend’s couch. Just moments before, both forms of my health insurance denied covering my new heart medication that would improve my quality of life as a person with disabilities. I hadn’t been able to stand or walk in days, and this medication would change that. So, I opened Facebook to mindlessly scroll.
Immediately, I saw the news. The disability community lost one of our own.
In the three days since, I’ve worked on coping with the sadness of losing Judy. I’ve also worked on coping with my anger toward the people who aren’t like Judy, who aren’t willing to change the world. Judy was always not just trying to change the world, but who succeeded in doing so.
Judy once said, “I wanna see feisty disabled people change the world.”
And Judy, I’m going to do just that – just as you have allowed me and so many others to do. I’m going to be a feisty disabled woman, changing the world.
Judy Heumann’s activism and advocacy are one of the main reasons why federal laws like Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act exist that I use daily to advocate for equal access to an education in the least restrictive environment for my clients. Therefore, she has a daily impact on my work and my clients.
I often share stories with friends and colleagues about my brother, who had an intellectual disability. I’ve talked about my mom’s advocacy to ensure he had the same opportunities as his siblings and prayer that he would feel content and happy with his life.
When my brother was born in 1954, Judy Heumann would have been around six years old. She would have contracted the Polio Virus and become paralyzed at age two. Judy’s mother, I suspect, would have been making plans to raise her child as she had always planned, figuring out any barriers or bumps in the road as they arise. That’s just what my mom was doing here in Iowa.
As my mom and other Iowans were figuring out what the barriers were, Mighty Might, as Judy’s mother was known, was raising a daughter that would one day bring people together to lead and begin the movement, the Disability Rights Movement, of which I am proudly a member.
Footnote: My brother passed away due to a sudden illness in 1993. Prior to his passing, he moved to one of the earliest HCBS settings in Cedar Rapids, he worked at a local bank two or three days per week utilizing public transportation. He became a trusted friend to many bus riders including a District Judge. When not working at the bank, he worked at a local workshop. He was not one to sit around the house. Mom also passed away in 2011. I like to think that Mom, my brother, and Judy can join together to inspire me until my work is done. Perhaps they share the same legacy. Perhaps I do as well. How about you?
I read Judy Heumann’s book, Being Heumann, in just one day, start to finish. I was enthralled by Judy’s experience and her message and her representation of the disability rights movement. I had just recently started my career at DRI when I read this book and her book fueled my passion and assurance that I was in the right place. Judy’s book was incredible. Judy’s book is powerful. As I read the book, yes, I knew the group was comprised of mainly folks with disabilities, but their action and determination, their ups and downs, could easily reflect any civil rights movement because it was just as powerful as any movement that ever came before or after. As a disability rights advocate, I will continue to promote and defend the legal and human rights of people with disabilities, in Judy’s memory. I’ll always be sad I never had the opportunity to meet Judy, but I’ll continue to see her in all the work we do.
As the communications intern for Disability Rights Iowa, I knew the very first post I would release on our platform had to include Judy Heumann. For as long as I can remember, Judy has been one my greatest role models. Her perseverance and fire are just some of her endless attributes that I strive to emulate. I have been extremely fortunate as a disabled person to have access to my world and education because of Judy’s fight. I have been inspired by Judy and the Disability Rights Movement to challenge ableism around my college campus. While presenting to faculty and staff, I have proudly worn a shirt with an image of Judy during the 504 Sit-Ins with her famous quotation: “I wanna see feisty disabled people change the world.” Judy was an incredible advocate that will never be forgotten in the disability community. I am forever thankful for Judy’s legacy and promise to be one of the many feisty disabled people who will continue her work until we achieve a truly inclusive, accessible, and equal society for the disability community.
Years ago, one of my colleagues told me that Judy Heumann would be interested in a program we were developing. Our program focused on using mentoring to teach disability inclusion. I remember thinking at the time – WOW, Judy Heumann!
As a Disability Rights Attorney, I had long considered Judy to be the fiercest of all disability advocates. I knew of her fights to advance disability rights, as well as her successes in the signing of the 504 Rehab Act regulations, the ADA, and many other impactful achievements. She was my advocacy role model in my early days as a disability rights attorney, and my change agent role model later in my career. However, I never expected that I’d have an opportunity to meet Judy.
Much to my surprise, Judy took time to meet with us, to offer ideas, questions, suggestions, her support, her enthusiasm, and her perspective on how we could improve our program. From this initial almost out of body conversation with Judy, I had the amazing fortune of continuing and deepening our conversation over the years. Judy offered me her friendship, shared her life’s experiences with me, and offered me guidance on how to continue to advance and preserve our rights. I remember once asking her “how can I change the world to ensure proactive disability inclusion?” I will never forget the quick twinkle in her eyes, her big, big smile, nor her advice, “You will need to make a lot of friends.” I took this advice to heart and made a lot of friends. I will continue to follow Judy’s advice and make many more friends, so that we collectively can continue Judy’s work and change the world.
I learned through the years of my friendship with Judy, that she regularly made time to offer herself and her profound wisdom to others. Judy was the most accomplished and humble person I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. To spend time with Judy, meant being fully present and passionately engaged in life. Judy did not waste a minute of her life. Her legacy, her smile and her joy will be with us always. While I miss Judy’s smile and her joy, I am comforted by knowing that Judy made advocates out of everyone she met. With these advocates and all my new friends, I pledge to continue Judy’s work. I pledge to not waste a minute of my life in my quest to make the world a better place for all of us. I miss you, Judy. Thank you for your friendship and forever enriching and changing my life.