Activist on Disability Rights, Nominee Has Battled Schools Before

By Debra Viadero — April 28, 1993 8 min read
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At age 5, Judith E. Heumann was not allowed to attend her neighborhood school in Brooklyn, N.Y., because school officials said her wheelchair might pose a “fire hazard.’'

At 22, she was told that she was medically unqualified to teach in the New York City school system.

Ms. Heumann has come a long way since then. Now 45 and a veteran activist on disability-rights issues, she is President Clinton’s nominee for one of the top jobs in the Education Department: assistant secretary for the office of special education and rehabilitative services.

Public policy on the rights of the disabled has come a long way, too. Now federal and state laws prohibit schools from discriminating against disabled students. And if Judy Heumann has her way, no school will be able to keep out a child with a disability ever again.

“Working here is going to be very challenging,’' Ms. Heumann said in an interview this month. “Not only working with disability issues, but within the department as a whole and trying to carry out a vision that will insure disabled children and adults greater opportunities for integration into all of society.’'

Ms. Heumann’s nomination was officially sent to the Senate last week. She agreed to be interviewed during a visit here but, because her selection has not yet been confirmed, she declined to discuss her positions on some of the issues facing her if she becomes assistant secretary.

20 Years of Activism

A co-founder and vice president of the World Institute on Disability, a California-based think tank, Ms. Heumann has been an advocate on behalf of disabled people for more than 20 years.

She is not the first disabled-rights activist--nor the first disabled person--to be nominated to head the Education Department’s special-education branch.

However, according to her supporters, she could be among the most tireless and most broadly prepared activists ever to get the OSERS job.

“She has forgotten more about this field than most people will ever know,’' said Justin Dart, the chairman of the President’s Commission on the Employment of People With Disabilities, who is himself a wheelchair user and longtime activist.

“I’m going to sleep better knowing she’s there,’' added Mr. Dart, who headed the Rehabilitation Services Administration under President Reagan and was appointed to his current post by President Bush.

‘Complexity of Experience’

Ms. Heumann became disabled after contracting polio at the age of 18 months. She has no use of her legs and very little strength in her upper arms. She must hire personal attendants to cook, shop, and clean for her and to drive her to and from her Oakland, Calif., office.

Her two decades of advocacy work have touched on issues affecting almost every aspect of daily life for children and adults with disabilities.

As an aide to Sen. Harrison Williams of New Jersey in the 1970’s, for example, she helped write P.L. 94-142, the landmark federal special-education law that assures all disabled children the right to a public education, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which bars bias against the disabled in federally funded programs.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has called her the “mother of the independent-living movement’’ for her work in helping to launch centers across the country to assist disabled people striving to work and live on their own.

And Ms. Heumann played a major role in lobbying for passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, the 1990 law that bars discrimination against people with disabilities in many aspects of American life.

“We can’t look at effective integration of disabled people until we look at all the obstacles that affect people in housing, rehabilitation, transportation, and so on,’' Ms. Heumann said. “I think I bring a complexity of experience.’'

Basement Classes

Her own memories of discrimination are vivid.

After she was denied admission to her neighborhood elementary school, Ms. Heumann was taught for four years, twice weekly, by a tutor who came to the house.

At age 9, she was placed in a “health conservation’’ class located in a far corner of the school basement. The students in the classroom, some of whom were as old as 21, had a wide range of disabilities. Ms. Heumann said she was the only member of her class to eventually graduate.

Even though the school was just 15 minutes from her home, she recalled, the bus ride lasted an hour and a half because the bus picked up disabled students scattered throughout the school district.

Ms. Heumann said she and her classmates were allowed to mix with the nondisabled children “upstairs’’ only once a week, when some of the older boys were sent down to push the wheelchair users to a schoolwide assembly.

“You kind of felt like you were in prison and you were being let out for good behavior,’' she said.

Ms. Heumann went on to graduate from Long Island University in 1969. Soon after, however, when she applied for a teaching job in the New York City school system, school officials said her application was turned down for a medical reason: “paralysis of both lower extremities sequela poliomyelitis.’'

In other words, Ms. Heumann said, laughing at the official terminology, she was denied the job because she could not walk.

With the help of a lawyer who was a customer in her father’s butcher shop, Ms. Heumann took her case to court in a battle that attracted nationwide attention.

“It wasn’t just an issue of my being denied a job,’' she said. “It was another case of another disabled person being denied a job.’'

First Teacher in Wheelchair

Ms. Heumann won her lawsuit in 1970 and became the first wheelchair user to teach in the New York City public schools.

Ironically, Ms. Heumann said, the job she landed was in her old neighborhood elementary school.

“The only classes I could get to were in the basement, and the basement classes were the same special-education classes that were there when I was a student,’' she said. She taught both disabled and nondisabled students there for three years.

Ms. Heumann declined to say whether her own experiences have shaped her views on the controversial issue of “full inclusion.’'

The special-education field is currently divided over whether disabled students should be “fully included’’ in school--that is, taught in regular classrooms all the time rather than being pulled out for special help. Some advocates for the disabled insist that all such children have the right to be taught alongside their nondisabled peers; others contend that such arrangements could lead to a dilution of the special-education services those children need.

“I basically believe that all children have the right to an education following the law, and I think children have the right to an education in the least restrictive environment appropriate to their needs,’' Ms. Heumann said, in words echoing the federal statute.

Seen as ‘Pragmatist’

Clearly, however, Ms. Heumann’s experiences helped propel her into a career as an advocate for the rights of the disabled.

Her activism became a full-time occupation in 1975 when she became deputy director of the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, Calif. The center helped launch a nationwide independent-living movement, still going strong today, that is aimed at fostering the kinds of supports needed for disabled people to live and work on their own.

Privately, some observers say they fear that Ms. Heumann may be too much of an activist for the politically sensitive Education Department post.

One newspaper reported that Ms. Heumann has participated in more than 50 disability-rights demonstrations in the course of her career. Last year, she chained herself to a gate at the Health and Human Services Department building in Washington to protest Bush Administration policies.

But Ms. Heumann’s friends and supporters play down concerns that her front-line orientation may not mesh well with her policymaking and administrative duties.

“She has been an activist, but at the same time she’s a pragmatist,’' said Robert Silverstein, the director of the Senate Subcommittee on Disability Policy, which is chaired by Senator Harkin. “She understands the world of advocacy and the world of bureaucracy at the same time.’'

“She also understands the need to work with the various disability groups,’' Mr. Silverstein added, “and the need to keep the disability community together.’'

Enormous Task Remains

Ms. Heumann’s commitment to advocacy has won her accolades over the years. She was the first recipient of the Prince Charitable Trusts’ $50,000 Henry B. Betts Award for improving the lives of disabled people, and she was designated by Ms. magazine as one of the 80 women to watch in the 1980’s.

By several accounts, the praise has been hard earned. Edward Roberts, the president and co-founder of the World Disability Institute, said Ms. Heumann works from 16 to 18 hours a day in her job there. She has cut her hours back only slightly in recent years, he added, after marrying Jorge Pinedo, an accountant who, like her, is disabled.

“I like working,’' Ms. Heumann said simply. “I expect it’ll pick back up again’’ in Washington.

That Ms. Heumann works such long hours may reflect in part the enormous size of the task she sees in insuring an equal chance for the disabled. Despite the passage in recent years of groundbreaking legislation such as the Americans With Disabilities Act, Ms. Heumann said, disabled people still have far to go in achieving equality.

“Even if A.D.A. were implemented 100 percent tomorrow,’' she said, “it still would not deal with some of the issues disabled people face--funding for sign-language interpreters, economic reforms, and so on.’'

“At least we have the knowledge now that more people out there understand what we’re talking about,’' she said.

A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 1993 edition of Education Week as Activist on Diability Rights, Nominee Has Battled Schools Before


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