Judith Heumann

Judith “Judy” Heumann


“Judith Heumann will forever be recognized as the Mother of the Disability Rights Movement.  As advocates here at Beacon, we are eternally grateful for her for leading the way & demanding better.  As advocates, we are compelled to carry the legacy of Judith’s work forward.  To use Judith’s own words, we need to continue to be willing to ‘make a fuss about it’ when we find something to be unacceptable for both ourselves and the folks that we support.” – Brian Bunte (Beacon Specialized Living)

Living with a disability from the age of two, Judith (Judy) Heumann experienced barriers and stigmas every day.  She was denied educational and vocational opportunities based solely on her disability.  People often judged her based on her disability, not on her abilities. Her experiences fueled a desire to prove that people with disabilities deserved respect and basic human rights.  Her tireless work for the disability community has earned her the title, Mother of the Disability Rights Movement.

Judy contracted polio at the age of two, lost the use of her legs, and began using a wheelchair.  With the support of family and allies, Judy did not let this hold her back.  She was able to excel in her studies, graduated with a B.A. from Long Island University, and she eventually earned a master’s degree in public health at the University of California, Berkeley.

“Some people say that what I did changed the world… but really, I simply refused to accept what I was told about who I could be. And I was willing to make a fuss about it.” – Judy Heumann

As an adult, Judy committed to working with and advocating for people with disabilities.  When she was denied a teaching position, based on her disability, Judy sued the New York Board of Education and won.  She became the first teacher in the state of New York to use a wheelchair.  This act of self-advocacy led to a lifetime of advocating for others.

In the 1970s, she worked as a counselor at a camp for people with disabilities.  Camp Jened was a place where people with disabilities could experience freedoms that were denied them in other places. At Camp Jened, recognizing the inequities and discrimination, she formed alliances with individuals who would later become her co-leaders in the disability rights movement.  This experience is featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary, Crip Cramp: A Disability Revolution.

As an activist, Judy organized protests and demonstrations.  When Richard Nixon vetoed the 1972 Rehabilitation Act, she led a protest in Manhattan that shut down traffic.  Most famous is the 26-day sit-in she organized at a San Francisco federal building that directly led to passage of Section 504 which prohibited discrimination of people with disabilities in programs receiving federal aid.  She was also instrumental in the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Rehabilitation Act.  Internationally, she worked on the United Nations Convention on Persons with Disabilities.

Judy founded and worked for numerous national and international nonprofit organizations dedicated to advocating for individuals with disabilities, including the Berkeley Center for Independent Living and the World Institute on Disability.  From 1993-2001, she served in the Clinton administration as the Assistant Secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, and during the Obama administration, she served as the Special Advisor for International Disability Rights.

Judy lived a rich, full life.  She loved meeting new people and valued family and friendship.  She loved children, watching musicals, and travelling the world.  Her memoir, Being Heumann:  Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist, co-authored with Kristen Joiner, was published in 2020.  Her story was also featured in a young adult novel titled Rolling Warrior.

“As a member of the Learning and Development team, I see Judy’s impact in the way that we train people, focused on the humanity of everyone we support.  As the parent and sibling of people with disabilities, I know that Judy’s work made a difference.  Because of Judy, my son and my sister have Rights that are protected by Law, Rights that were once ignored and routinely violated.   Judy would tell you that her work, the work of disability advocacy, is not done.  Now that she is gone, it is our responsibility to continue that legacy by providing support according to our Beacon Values.”  – Amy Rathbun (Beacon Specialized Living)

Judy Heumann’s accomplishments have had a monumental impact on individual lives as well as disability organizations like Beacon Specialized Living.  Many Beacon policies can be directly connected to legislation that Judy helped pass.  She was passionate about creating a community that respected all people, offering them every opportunity to attain whatever they could dream.  In her passing, Judy reminds us that with support and compassion great things can be accomplished.

“A disability doesn’t hold someone back. It allows them to experience and view the world differently than others. Then they can share their values and views, and we all learn from everyone.  This, in turn, helps us care for one another and see the deeper meaning in life.” -Jenn Straka (Beacon Specialized Living)

Judith Heumann


  • Jenn Straka

    Jennifer holds a BA in English & Communications from Western Michigan University, focusing on marketing and sales. With over a decade of experience, she brings a fresh lens to Beacon's events and activities, helping the individuals we serve through acts of kindness wherever she goes.

    Compliance & Marketing Assistant