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April 30, 2017 HUMAN RIGHTS

Human Rights Hero: Judy Heumann

Aram A. Schvey


Judy Heumann, this issue’s Human Rights Hero, has been a leader in the disability rights movement for more than 30 years, both in the United States and around the world. Throughout her career, which has spanned non-governmental, governmental, and international institutions, she has been a tireless advocate for the civil and human rights of persons with disabilities. Her vision is not one where disability is merely tolerated; it is a vision of an inclusive society: “I’ve always believed that the circle needs to be bigger,” she explains.

She sees parallels between the civil rights movement and the disability rights movement. Both have had to struggle to change the law, but both movements were also about fighting against prejudice. Throughout her career, Heumann has challenged the view that disabled people are unable to achieve great things and that accommodations are necessarily complicated or expensive. She cites, for example, a small-business owner who didn’t think he could accommodate disabled workers in his glass pane manufacturing business. But Heumann connected him with experts from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the resulting minor changes to the manufacturing process not only allowed the business to hire disabled people, but it also reduced injuries among all workers.

Heumann has been a trailblazer her entire life. After positions at disability rights organizations and in California state government, she joined the Clinton administration’s Department of Education, where she served as assistant secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. From there on, she served as a number of “firsts.” From 2002 to 2006, she served as the World Bank’s first-ever advisor on disability and development; from 2007 to 2010, she served as the first-ever director of the District of Columbia’s Department of Disability Services; and from 2010 until January of this year, she served as the first-ever special advisor for international disability rights at the U.S. Department of State.

Judy Heumann never had the luxury of deciding whether or not she wanted to be an advocate for people with disabilities: The choice was thrust upon her at an early age. Infected with polio as a toddler during one of the last outbreaks in the United States, Heumann lost the use of her legs at a young age. Her school was unprepared—and unwilling—to accommodate her and offered to provide instead a teacher to come to her house—for a mere two and a half hours a week. It wasn’t until age nine that she started formal schooling. Then, after attending college, she was informed that she couldn’t become a teacher due to her disability. Not one to be told that she couldn’t do something, Heumann brought a lawsuit and eventually forced the New York Department of Education to capitulate.

While Heumann has enjoyed a storied career, her life is dedicated to the principle that she is no more remarkable than many other people with disabilities: “There are many people with disabilities in the United States and around the world who are doing incredible work. We shouldn’t be seen as exceptions to the rule.” The world, she says, is “wasting talent by not allowing people to make the contributions they can make.”

The nation—and the world—are better off for the contributions Judy Heumann has made, and the world is a fairer, richer, and more inclusive place because of them.

Aram A. Schvey

is a lawyer with expertise in constitutional and international human rights law and currently serves as senior policy counsel and manager of special projects at the Center for Reproductive Rights. He is also a member of the Human Rights Editorial Board.