(New York, March 5, 2023) — Human Rights Watch mourns the passing of leading disability rights activist Judy Human, a dear friend and board member. Human Rights Watch said that Humann’s lifelong activism supporting the rights of people with disabilities in the United States and around the world was extraordinary.
He died on March 4, 2023, at the age of 75, surrounded by his closest friends.
“Judy was a true force of nature—a visionary leader, fierce advocate, trailblazer,” said Shanta Rau Barriga, disability rights director at Human Rights Watch. “She was a stalwart in the human rights movement and she led with such integrity. This loss will be felt far and wide but what a legacy she has left behind.
Heumann, who was struck by polio in 1949, had to struggle against stigma and exclusion from a young age. At age 5 in Brooklyn, New York, he was denied a chance to attend his local school because his inability to walk was deemed a “fire hazard”. Instead she was given home instruction twice a week, for a total of less than two hours.
After his mother challenged the decision, Human was allowed to attend a “special” segregated school for children with disabilities. After mounting parental pressure, the school system reversed its policy and Human joined the local mainstream high school in 1961.
As a young adult, Heumann was denied her teaching license in New York State despite passing her oral and written exams due to concerns that she would not be able to assist children in emergencies. He sued the board of education and became the first wheelchair user to become a teacher in New York State.
Human specifically said: “Disability only becomes a tragedy when society fails to provide the things we need to lead our lives – for example job opportunities or barrier-free buildings. That’s not a tragedy to me.” is that I’m living in a wheelchair”
In April 1977, Heumann led a 28-day sit-in, the longest at any federal building, in protest of the US Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare’s refusal to sign off on long-delayed regulations. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which fought against discrimination and exclusion of people with disabilities. Not only was the effort successful in pressuring the government to adopt regulations, it also brought together diverse members of the disability community and allies.
Human’s activism was chronicled in the Oscar-nominated 2020 documentary.crib campAbout young people who spent their summer vacations at Camp Jenned in northern New York. As Heumann said, “I want to see people with feigned disabilities change the world.”
Heumann is considered a founder of the independent living movement and was instrumental in advancing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Persons with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. HUMAN also played a key role in ensuring that people with disabilities benefit from international development aid. She was the World Bank’s first advisor on disability and development, and was appointed by President Barack Obama as the inaugural Senior Advisor to the US State Department on International Disability Rights. He served as a Senior Fellow at the Ford Foundation from 2017 to 2019.
Since 2018, Heumann served as co-chair of Human Rights Watch’s Disability Rights Advisory Committee and joined the board of directors in 2020.
“Judy Heumann’s legacy goes well beyond her tremendous influence on legislation and policy that empowers people with disabilities,” said Amy Rao, co-chair of the Human Rights Watch Board. “She was a role model for how fierce activism can change the world, and made us look at why inclusion matters. She was a legend.