Judy Heumann Walked So Everyone Else Could Run…Figuratively Speaking

When my ex and I were together, our oldest granddaughter was getting married in the summer of 2012. She had gotten to the point of walking with a cane at the time. As grandmother, she was going to be escorted down the aisles. So. we were at the rehearsal and her daughter noted that she was walking with a cane and said, she couldn’t walk with a cane. But our granddaughter said she could walk with a cane because she needs to.

I’m pretty sure anyone who has a mobile disability has heard something similar. And it’s usually from someone who we consider a friend or family member. If it’s Joe Nobody-I-Know then we usually tell them to were stick the walking cane. But sadly, I think this was an issue her daughters had with her as she was getting older and her body wasn’t the same as it used to be.

Sadly, Judy Heumann got a lot of those comments from people. She wasn’t alone. Born in 1947, she developed polio at 18 months and had to use a wheelchair the rest of her life. And many people felt that she should remained behind closed doors, out of sight and out of mind. When her parents tired to enroll her in public school, the administrators refused stating she could be a fire hazard. She had to have home instructions. Her mother, Ilsa, a German Jewish immigant, was a local community activist and fought for years for her to be enrolled in school.

While people on college campus in the 1960s were raging protests against the Vietnam War, Heumann was doing her own protests at Long Island University. They were for disability rights. She fought for ramps to make it easier for students as well as pushed for them to stay in college dorms. If people thought once she graduated in 1969, she would chill out, they were mistaken.

She went after he teaching license in 1970 but the Board of Education for the City of New York refused pulling the fire hazard issue again. Heumann sued them. The publicity brought her a lot of support and with other people, they founded the Disability in Action and spent of the 1970s staging sit-ins and rallying for changes. President Richard Nixon had vetoed sections of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

But on Apri 5, 1977, everything changed. Heumann, along with disability rights activist Kitty Cone and others, began a sit-in at the San Francisco office of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare over regulations of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. It stated: “No otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United States shall solely on the basis of his handicap, be excluded from the participation, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” That might have looked good on paper, but very little was being done to enforce it.

That is when Heumann and others occupied the San Francisco office demanding HEW Secretary Joselph Califano and the Jimmy Carter Administration make this section more enforcement and sign regulations. Protests went around the country and the occupation last 26 days until Califano signed the regulations. But that was just the beginning.

Heumann spent most of her life in positions to help the rights of the disabled. In 1983, she co-founded the World Institute on Disability in 1983, serving as co-director for 10 years. She was appointed the first Director for the Department of Disability Services in Washington, D.C. And then she was Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services at the United States Department of Education from 1993 to 2001 while President Bill Clinton was in office. President Barack Obama appointed her Special Advisor on International Disability Rights for the U.S. State Department from 2010 to 2017. She also worked with the World Bank and the Ford Foundation during her life.

But most people will say she made people pay attention and encouraged others to realize that just because they have to use wheelchairs, motorized carts or even a walking cane, it’s not something to frown upon. “Disability only becomes a tragedy for me when society fails to provide the things we need to lead our lives––job opportunities or barrier-free buildings, for example. It is not a tragedy to me that I’m living in a wheelchair,” she said during an interview in 1994.

On Saturday, March 4, she died at her house in Washington, D.C. where she had lived with her husband, Jorge Pineda, who she married in 1992. In 2020, she authored Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist. She was also featured in the Netflix documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution which was produced by Higher Ground Productions which was founded by Barack and Michelle Obama.

It would be nice to say all that she and other disability rights activists have done has changed everything across the board. But we still see discrimination everywhere. I’ve stated in previous posts, that Hollywood can help make the change. Criticism arose over Brendan Fraser having the wear a fat suit to play a 600-pound man in The Whale. And while using a real 600-pound man, who has to use a wheelchair, might have been dangerous, filmmakers and TV producers can make the change elsewhere.

I cringed a little during the third season of Cobra Kai as Miguel Diaz (Xolo Mariduena) had been in accident that left him in a wheelchair. He is nursed and helped back somewhat foolishly by Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka). But the problem is people are watching that thinking everyone needs a little “can do” attitudue to be fully healed. A lot of times, it’s not so simple. Without proper physical therapy practices and techniques, people can end up worst. And sometimes, physical therapy can cause accidents.

Yet disabled people constantly find themselves being questioned or even shunned. I went to school with a woman who hurt her leg on a skiing accident and they had to do surgery up and down her leg. She has to use a handicapped decal in the car but on the outside looks healthy. She posted how she received a nasty letter on her car one time from someone calling her a faker. I have another friend who has scoliosis as a child and has her whol back fused from neck to tailbone. She has complications at only 31.

My disability lawyers said it’s no good trying to be a “manly man” just because people have expected that and been taught that. I’ve walked with a cane for more than three years. I’m not ashamed. If people don’t want to be seen with me, that’s on them. I’m not ashamed to be this way and others shouldn’t either. I takes shorter to walk than normal to get where I’m going and I have to use a shower chair.

What people like Heumann, Cone, and many, many others wanted as have I is just to be included. We’re not contagious. If you shake our hands, we’re not going to spread a disease. It’s not airborne. You can be in a room with us for as long as possible and not get disabled. The world Heumann and others were fighting against was an ugly one and we shouldn’t return to it. It shouldn’t take someone who has a disability or be associated with someone who has a disability.

It’s time to stop the mentality that if you don’t have a dog in the fight, you shouldn’t step in and help. If some of the the able-bodied people who do absolutely nothing would help out, we might make more better changes faster. Others have to carry the torch now, even if they have to use a wheelchair. If we don’t, Heumann’s death is in vain.

What do you think? Please comment.

Published by bobbyzane420

I'm an award winning journalist and photographer who covered dozens of homicides and even interviewed President Jimmy Carter on multiple occasions. A back injury in 2011 and other family medical emergencies sidelined my journalism career. But now, I'm doing my own thing, focusing on movies (one of my favorite topics), current events and politics (another favorite topic) and just anything I feel needs to be posted. Thank you for reading.

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