It is with great sadness that we acknowledge the death of the acclaimed Disability Rights activist and author, Judith Heumann. Ms. Heumann died Saturday, March 4th in Washington DC after a brief hospitalization. She was 75 years old.
Long before she became an international leader of the Disability Rights movement, with many of her US policy initiatives being enacted in other countries, Heumann was a leader of the famous Section 504 protest when over 150 people with disabilities occupied a government building in San Francisco for 25 days in 1977. The longest occupation of a federal building in American history, the protest led to the passage of groundbreaking legislation and was the first bill to acknowledge not only that discrimination against disabled people existed, but also that it was a civil rights issue.
The story of the protest was shared in dramatic detail in Heumann’s 2020 book, Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist, written with Kristen Joiner and timed to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disability Act. During a promotional tour for the book and for the Netflix documentary “Crip Camp,” which featured Heumann as a budding activist, she appeared on “The Daily Show” where host Trevor Noah said he expected to be impressed by her book but wasn’t prepared for “how much of a badass you’d be.”
Heumann and Joiner collaborated again when they adapted the memoir for young readers with the 2021 publication of Rolling Warrior: The Incredible, Sometimes Awkward, True Story of a Rebel Girl on Wheels Who Helped Spark a Revolution. The audio for both books was performed by the Tony Award- winning actress Ali Stroker. The rights for Being Heumann were optioned to Apple TV, with the Academy Award winning writer/director of CODA, Sian Heder, on board to write and direct the biopic.
After the Section 504 sit-in, Heumann served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations. Hillary Clinton noted on Twitter that “Judy Heumann’s lifelong advocacy for the rights and dignity of people with disabilities made the world a better place for everyone. She served under Bill’s administration and with me at State, and her voice will be much missed.” The Obamas also remembered her on social media, writing “Judy Heumann dedicated her life to the fight for civil rights — starting as a young organizer at Camp Jened and later helping lead the disability rights movement. Michelle and I were fortunate to work with Judy over the years, and are thinking of her family and friends.”
Within Beacon Press, executive editor Joanna Green, who acquired and edited both books, said “Judy’s story especially resonated with young people who were encountering disability history for the first time and who deeply connected with the universal message of belonging.” Beacon’s director Gayatri Patnaik noted that “both Being Heumann and Rolling Warrior were instrumental in bringing Judy’s life story to a wider audience and to a new generation of young activists. Judy was a force and a profound catalyst for change–a truly influential American hero.”
“In the broader civil rights movements disability was and still is absent,” Heumann and Joiner concluded in Being Heumann. “When whole groups of people become segregated from others in our society, it weakens the fabric of our democracy.”
In November, 2021, we were honored to have Judith join us at a special virtual event for Common Reading: