Joint Statement on the Work and Legacy of the Late Judy Heumann

For Immediate Release
March 17, 2023

Tony Pals,
(202) 238-3235

Marla Koenigsknecht,
(202) 238-3233

Joint Statement on the Work and Legacy of the Late Judy Heumann from the Leaders of AERA, the AERA Special and Inclusive Education Research SIG, and the AERA Disability Studies in Education SIG

March 17, 2023

Judith “Judy” Heumann, widely regarded as “the mother” of the disability rights movement, passed away unexpectedly in Washington, D.C., on the afternoon of March 4, 2023. Born in 1947 and diagnosed with polio at 18 months, Judy used a wheelchair for most of her life. After she was denied admission to New York City Public Schools and called a “fire hazard,” her mother advocated for her to attend her neighborhood school. Later, the same school district denied Judy a teaching license for the same reason. She sued and went on to become the first teacher in New York State to use a wheelchair. 

She spent her entire life advocating on behalf of herself and others and was at the forefront of major disability rights demonstrations. Although Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act was passed under the Nixon administration, it was not enforced under either the Nixon or Ford administrations. Heumann’s advocacy and protests, including her participation and leadership in the 26-day takeover of a federal building in San Francisco, helped secure the eventual enforcement of Section 504 under the Carter administration in 1977. Section 504 protects the civil rights of people with disabilities by requiring that entities receiving federal funds not discriminate on the basis of disability in employment, education, or participation. Heumann’s continued activism inside and outside of government helped spearhead the passage of other disability rights legislation, including the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (now the IDEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). She founded national and international disability advocacy organizations and held senior federal government positions, including as assistant secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services; Washington, D.C.’s first director for the Department on Disability Services; the first advisor on disability and development at the World Bank; and most recently, special advisor for international disability rights at the U.S. Department of State.

In her memoir and throughout her life Judy pushed back on the ableist notion that her disability or wheelchair use was anything she should feel shame about, saying, “Disability only becomes a tragedy when society fails to provide the things we need to lead our lives.” Judy’s story can be found in her co-authored memoir, Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist, and its young adult version, Rolling Warrior: The Incredible, Sometimes Awkward, True Story of a Rebel Girl on Wheels Who Helped Spark a Revolution. Parts of her story were also featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary film Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution.

More information about Judy Heumann’s life can be found here:

May we, the greater AERA community, keep Judy Heumann’s incredible legacy alive by continuing the fight for disability rights through our work and lives.

AERA Special and Inclusive Education Research (#113) Special Interest Group (SIG) Leaders: Meghan Cosier, Ph.D.; Taucia Gonzalez, Ph.D.; Katie McCabe, Ph.D.; Heather Brown, Ph.D.; Jennifer Cowhy; and Shameeka M. Wilson

AERA Disability Studies in Education SIG (#143) Special Interest Group Leaders: Saili S. Kulkarni, Ph.D.; Emily A. Nusbaum, Ph.D.; Valentina Migliarini, Ph.D., Katherine Newhouse, Ph.D., and Kimiya Maghzi, Ph.D.

American Educational Research Association (AERA) Leaders: Rich Milner, Ph.D., AERA President; Felice J. Levine, Ph.D, AERA Executive Director


About AERA
The American Educational Research Association (AERA) is the largest national interdisciplinary research association devoted to the scientific study of education and learning. Founded in 1916, AERA advances knowledge about education, encourages scholarly inquiry related to education, and promotes the use of research to improve education and serve the public good. Find AERA on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.