100 Women Who Have Helped Shape America

Judith Heumann

Bonnie Cash

Judith Heumann has been active in the fight for disability rights most of her life. One of her earliest such experiences was in fourth grade, when she and her mother challenged a local public school that refused to let her attend because it said her wheelchair would be a fire hazard. Years later, she became the first wheelchair user to teach in New York City.

In 1977, disabled activists around the country occupied federal buildings calling for Joseph Califano, former President Carter’s secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, to implement Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Heumann was a leader of the Bay Area “504 Sit-in,” which lasted 26 days. 

“We had a very strong coalition in the Bay Area: labor unions, women’s groups, Black Panthers, farmworkers, et cetera,” Heumann told The Hill. “We decided that we were going to stay in the building.”

“We decided they were not taking us seriously anywhere in the country and that we would just stay and we committed to staying after the first night, when the people in Washington left because they were being denied medicine and food,” she added. Later, the San Francisco demonstrators traveled to Washington and increased the pressure, demonstrating outside the White House, Califano’s house and Carter’s church.

“I think what came out of it was not just the signing of the regulation but a stronger movement where people … recognized that we were a force to contend with and that if we really held strong on an issue where we could completely justify what we were doing and why we were doing it. It was important that we could maintain our resolve,” Heumann said.

Heumann would go on to work in the Clinton administration, in the Department of Education, and the Obama administration, at the State Department. 

“I think I felt for both of those jobs that I was both prepared for the job and also prepared to learn, because I think that was what was exciting for me in both of the jobs. I felt the learning that I was doing — and I was there — and the knowledge I had before really helped drive the learning forward,” she told The Hill.

— Zack Budryk

photo: Bonnie Cash


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