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

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.