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Not a Fire Hazard: Judith Heumann the Mother of American Disability Rights

Updated: Dec 13, 2022

Judith Heumann, Time's Woman of the Year, 1977. Image courtesy of Time magazine,

Judy Heumann is called the mother of the disability rights movement. Judith was born in 1947 and raised in New York. In the 1950’s, America women, Blacks, Hispanics, LGBTQ persons, and people with disabilities had very few rights. Judith advocated for rights of disabled people by leading groups, organizing protests, working with governments and presidents, and to improve life for Americans with disabilities. Like most disability rights activists, Judith has a disability. She became a wheelchair user in 1950 after getting polio. That was before electric wheelchairs were available for anyone, including children. Today, Judith lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband Jorge Pineda and continues to work for disability equality and civil rights.

Judith Heumann was denied access to elementary school. Schools thought that wheelchair users would be a hazard in case of emergencies. Judith works to make sure that people with all sorts of different disabilities are included in emergency plans. She knows with planning and cooperation that everyone can be safe and included.

Judith worked for Presidents Clinton and Obama to create safer and accepting schools and workplaces for children and adults with disabilities. She knows that living with a disability is normal. We are all different. How we look, think, see, move, communicate, feel, and process information in our surroundings is unique to each one of us. Excluding people because of the way they are is wrong. This is a story of one girl deciding to change the world since the world was shutting her out.

Judith Heumann as a child, image courtesy of BBC

Early years

Judy Heumann was born in 1947 and raised in New York. When she was two years old she caught a disease that isn’t around anymore called polio. Polio made her very sick for a short time, but then recovered. She was a healthy girl, though she now needed to use a wheelchair to get around. Some kids run and some shuffle their feet. Judith uses a wheelchair. She turned the rope while others jumped, played dolls, and other games with the neighborhood kids. Judith would wear roller skates while pretending to roller skate when all the kids skated. She was a normal, healthy, happy girl who was friends with the kids on her block.

She saw herself as just one of the kids. That changed one day when a boy looked at her and asked, “Are you sick?” It seemed like the silliest question. She was healthy. Then Judith realized what the boy meant. He thought she was sick because she used a wheelchair. Until then, Judith thought she was like everyone else. People saw her wheelchair as a sign that she was different, sick, less than capable.

From 1st to 3rd grade, Judith and her mom went to many schools. Her mom pulled her wheelchair up the stairs to each one, bump, bump, bump. Judith and her mom asked at each school office, “Where is Judith’s class?” The school principal talked to her mom and told her that Judith's wheelchair was a fire hazard and that Judith cannot attend school here.”

The first time this happened, Judith was confused. Her mom was taking her home, not to class. Judith did not hear what the principal had said. Judith’s mom called other schools. They all said, “No.”

Judith would not be going to school with the other kids. Her parents were frustrated. Judith was sad. The next year, Judith sat at the window watching her friends, siblings, and even her little brother go to school. No schools would let Judith attend grades 1, 2, or 3. They all said, “Judith’s wheelchair is a fire hazard.”

Though she wasn’t allowed to go to school, at home, a teacher came to their house for two hours, 3 times a week. The teacher gave her boring worksheets. Her parents taught Judith to read chapter books, multiply, divide, and about history. At dinner, the whole family would discuss news stories and social issues. Judith learned how to question things that seemed unfair in the world.

Special Education

In New York, when Judith was in 3rd grade, many parents of children with disabilities got together and asked the New York school board to let their children go to school. Parents wanted their kids to go to school so they could get good jobs. The kids wanted to go to school to make new friends. Finally, one school agreed. The school board said, “Children with disabilities who pass a test can attend a new special education class”.

Judith passed the test with flying colors. She could go to school! Finally, no more boring worksheets. She dreamed of being at school. Eating lunch with friends. Being in the playground at recess. Making new friends. Learning new things.

The first day of 4th grade came. Judith picked out her special outfit. A school bus with a wheelchair lift picked her up. The bus drove for an hour to get to her school. Finally, she rolled into her new classroom. She looked around. Things at school were not what Judith expected. Most of the students in her class were much older, they were given the same worksheets that the teacher who came to Judith’s house had used. Judith was confused. She quietly did her work. It was easy. She noticed some of the other students struggling to read and do math. Judith helped them.

Another surprising thing was that they were told to takes a nap in the afternoon. Judith stopped taking afternoon naps when she was 4 years old. She put her head down thinking, “I don’t remember my friends or brothers napping at school.” At 2:00, the teacher said it was time to leave. Judith got on the bus for her hour ride home.

That’s what school was like for Judith from 4th grade to 9th grade. There were no tests or grades. No one seemed to care if she or the other students in her class were actually learning. Her class was separated from the non-disabled students. They were segregated, not by the color of their skin but by their disability. At recess, Judith’s class was not allowed at the playground or in the cafeteria. The special education students did not attend any of the classes or activities other students did. There was no art class, no music class, none of the special activities other classes participated in. Judith and her classmates were hidden away from the rest of the students.

Judith made friends with her classmates. Her best friend was a girl who also used a wheelchair. As they rolled down the street they would laugh and shout at people who stared at them, “Take a picture, it lasts longer!” Being around other children with disabilities was easy. Her classmates accepted each other fully. They were equals in a world that did not accept or value them. They talked about how the world was trying to exclude them with steps, rules, and attitudes. They happily helped each other. They formed a community within a school that refused to acknowledge them.

High School

In tenth grade, Judith started high school in a regular classroom. It was the first time she was integrated into a regular classroom. It was nerve wracking. For the first time she took tests and got grades.

Judith did not make friends at the high school. The non-disabled kids avoided her or treated her like a pet. Teachers and students often did not make eye contact with her. Only a few people would bend down to talk with her. She was at butt height and talking to someone’s backside felt strange.

She felt like an outsider when she had to ask classmates to help her open doors and push her. Asking someone to push her to the bathroom, wrestle open the door, and help her get to and from her wheelchair so she could use a non-disabled stall was embarrassing. She did not drink much water all day so she wouldn’t have to use the bathroom. She learned who to ask for help and who to never ask for help. Her grades were very good but she was lonely.

When Judith graduated high school, she got an award for her good grades. She was very excited. Her mom and dad were excited to see her receive her award. Judith felt proud in her graduation gown. Her parents came early to make sure Judith would be on the stage to get her award. Her father asked where the ramp was, but the janitor shrugged his shoulders and told him that there was no ramp. That was unacceptable to Judith’s father, so he started pulling her wheelchair up the stairs. Bump, bump. The principal wasn’t happy and told him that she didn’t need to be on the stage. Her father insisted and began bumping her up the rest of the steps.

Judith felt people in the audience staring at her. They saw “the girl in the wheelchair”, not Judith, the great student who was getting an award. She felt like crying, too many people were staring at her. “Dad, it is fine, I don’t need to be on stage. In fact, let’s just go home. They can mail my award and diploma to me. Please Dad, let’s go home.”

Mr. Heumann wouldn’t let his daughter’s big moment be stolen. The principal finally agreed and pointed at a space nearly off stage and mainly hidden by the other students.

Judith was finally getting over her embarrassment when her name was called for her academic achievement award. She began to roll from her hidden spot towards the center of the stage, but before she got 10 feet, he handed her the award and indicated that she should wheel herself behind the other students. He was embarrassed that Judith was one of the school’s finest students. She was, in his mind, a fire hazard not a top scholar.

Her parents never got to see Judith get her award because it happened too quickly, too far away, at the far back corner of the stage. Judith, the girl who wanted to go to school, was denied the chance to show the world that she was a good scholar.


When Judith had been in high school, like all high school students, she saw a career counselor. Judith’s career counselor said, “Well, no one will want to marry you, so you better get a career.” Judith always wanted a career. People with disabilities also can and do get married. They can have careers and get married.

In the 60’s, the government paid for people with disabilities’ education. The Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) department approved funding based on the program, employability, and other tests. Judith wanted to be a teacher. She knew she could teach, and she wanted to show other children that a person using a wheelchair can be a teacher. HEW did not know of any teachers using a wheelchair and would only approve her application if she studied speech therapy and education.

Judith went to Long Island University. She lived on campus. Students helped her get to classes, opened doors for her, but she made very few friends. The other students saw her as different from them and dismissed her value as a person.


All teachers had to pass a physical examination. Judith was healthy. When she got to the Dr.’s office she was asked to walk. Judith had not walked since she was 2. The doctor failed Judith for not walking. What did walking have to do with teaching? The school board said that unless she could walk that she would block exits with her wheelchair and be a fire hazard.

Ugh. She tried again and again and was denied her teaching license because she could not walk.

A reporter at the New York Times heard about Judith being denied her teaching license and wrote a story about it. A couple of lawyers, who knew her dad through his delicatessen, called Judith and said they would help her, for free! The lawyers helped Judith sue the New York school board to get her teaching licence. She won her case and was awarded her teaching license.

However, no schools wanted to hire her. Finally, one school did, She taught in a special education class. She really wanted to teach English to high school students. It was a bad fit for Judith. She was not a special education teacher, she was a high school English teacher.

Ed Roberts, Judith Heumann, and Joan Leon from the World Institute on Disability,. Image courtesy of The Disability Invisibility Project,

Berkeley and Beyond

Ed Roberts, the founder of the first Center for Independent Living (CIL), heard about Judith winning her right to teach. He thought, “Judith can help people with disabilities get their civil rights recognized.” Ed was leaving the CIL to be the director of the Health Education and

Welfare Department, (HEW), in California. He called Judith and asked her to come to Berkeley to take over for him.

Judith enrolled in Berkeley’s new civil rights program in 1973. Judith left all her family and friends behind and moved from New York to California. For the first time in her life, she was able to cross the road thanks to new curb cuts. She met the other students with disabilities at CIL. It was exciting to belong to a group of people trying to get the same civil rights that all Americans had. There were buses that she could ride. Houses that were accessible. Things were light years ahead of New York.

Judith’s work at the Center for Independent Living was gathering people together. They made amazing changes that improved the lives of people living with disabilities. Her work and personality opened many doors for her. She co-founded the World Institute on Disability in 1983. That group was able to improve conditions for people with disabilities all over the world. She was one of the people involved in the protests that led to passage of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and later, the Americans with Disabilities Act. She worked for Presidents Clinton and Obama to create better conditions for people with disabilities.

When she was a teenager, she attended a camp for children with disabilities and recently a film was made about it called Crip Camp. She wrote a book about her life. Judith lives in Washington, DC with her husband, Jorge Pineda. She proved all her teachers wrong by becoming successful.

Judith Heumann books:

Rolling Warrior: The Incredible, Sometimes Awkward, True Story of a Rebel Girl on Wheels Who Helped Spark a Revolution

Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist

Judith Heumann, image courtesy of UCLA Newsroom,

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