An Activist You Can't Ignore.

AuthorErvin, Mike

Judy Heumann is an iconic disability rights activist and a leader of the famous 504 Sit-in of 1977. During the sit-in, more than 100 activists occupied the San Francisco office of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in protest of federal government inaction on implementing the first national disability civil rights law, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

The activists refused to leave until their demands were met; the occupation lasted twenty-five days. In her new memoir, Being Heumann, she details the oppressive segregation she and other disabled kids were subjected to in the 1950s and 1960s.

Heumann contracted polio in 1949, when she was eighteen months old, and has used a wheelchair ever since. Both of her parents, from Jewish families, were sent alone as teenagers to the United States from Germany as the Nazis rose to power. They taught her to question things that did not feel right--"whether it is an instruction from an authority or what a teacher says in class."

Heumann was refused admission into kindergarten because her wheelchair was considered a dangerous obstruction and hence a "fire hazard," so she was hometutored for three years. But her friends always found ways to include her in games, and her parents made sure she experienced fun and important childhood events. As she recalls, "There were curbs and steps to conquer, and I wasn't allowed in school, but I was a cheerful, contented girl."

Heumann was eventually allowed to attend school and went on to graduate from Long Island University. But she was denied a license to teach by the New York City public school system, after being peppered with intrusive questions about her diagnosis and medical history. "It didn't matter how smart or capable I was, or how good my grades were, or how much experience I had," she writes. "Because I couldn't walk, I wasn't considered qualified to teach second-graders."

So Heumann decided to sue. The ACLU wouldn't take her case, but Roy Lucas, the lawyer who was famous for defending abortion rights, read about her situation and offered to repesent her. The judge on her case was Constance Baker Motley, the first black woman appointed to the federal bench who as a lawyer had worked with Thurgood Marshall at the NAACP...

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