Judy Heumann Oral History
Caption: Disability rights activist Judy Heumann describes her experience in school in Queens, and her early advocacy to get hired as a teacher.
Judith (Judy) Heumann was one of tens of thousands of children who contracted polio during outbreaks in the late 1940s and early 1950s and became physically disabled. As a young girl, she received home instruction until her mother was able to get Judy enrolled at P.S. 219 in Queens when she was in the fourth grade. On her first day of school she rode with other children in a wheelchair-accessible bus. She met the paraprofessionals who would help her and other Disabled students get around the school, use the bathroom, and get physical, occupational, or speech therapy.1 She recalled that everyone in her class used braces or a wheelchair, and that they were taught in a basement classroom separated from the “kids upstairs”—the non-Disabled students. Heumann’s special education class resembled the ungraded classes from the early 20th century, and included students aged 9-21.2 They were grouped together because of their physical access needs, in spite of a wide range of academic and social needs.
When she was in elementary school, Heumann felt like teachers had no expectations for Disabled students to continue on to middle school, high school, or college, and that she and her peers were given minimal instruction as a result.3 But Judy did make it to high school. She describes in this interview that she felt nervous about the competitiveness of school, and about being measured against nonDisabled students. She recalls “not feeling that comfortable” in high school because it was difficult to get around on her own without a motorized wheelchair. She felt like she never did well on tests because she spent so much of her early education in unstructured environments with low expectations. She found that she was more comfortable around other children with disabilities, especially so at Camp Jened, where she and other children felt a sense of freedom knowing that their needs were met as “a given.” 4
This insecurity also translated to college, when she only applied to schools that didn’t require graduate exams. In college, Heumann decided she wanted to teach second grade and applied for a job with the NYC Board of Education. In order to get her teaching certificate, she was required to have a physical examination in addition to oral and written examinations. In 1970, when her certification was denied because of “paralysis of the lower extremities,” she filed a federal lawsuit charging that the BOE had discriminated against her due to her disability.5 The case was settled a few months later and Heumann went on to teach for several years before moving to Berkeley, CA.
In 1972, she helped to found Disabled In Action, a cross-disability organization that has been involved in numerous disability rights struggles in New York City and beyond.6
She argued for the use of the word “disabled” over the term “handicapped” and helped to shape the Americans with Disabilities Act. In 1993, she was appointed as Assistant Secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services for the U.S. Department of Education, and attended the Disability Independence Day March in New York City later that year. Judy spent the rest of her life advocating for people with disabilities, and came to be known as the “mother of the disability rights movement.”7
Feeling uncomfortable in high school
Young: What sort of accommodations were necessary in high school? Did you have an attendant at that point while you were in school?
Heumann: I think then there was an aide there who would help us. I’m trying to remember. I don’t really remember that much, but I know that there was. I don’t remember the name of the person, though. Sometimes my friends would help me. But in high school I just remember mainly not feeling that comfortable. I don’t think it was an all-out consuming feeling because when I came home on the bus I was with my friends, and I certainly had friends who were part of the special ed class, and we socialized after school and talked on the phone a lot. Then I had my friends who I’d made in elementary school, and I was still friends with them throughout high school, and I had my friends in my neighborhood and my family. I had a lot of friends. I always had a lot of friends.
Young: It sounds like most of your best friends were people with disabilities.
Heumann: No, and friends from my neighborhood–none of them had disabilities. So, my friends in my neighborhood–none of them had disabilities–my cousins didn’t have disabilities, the kids that I met through religious school didn’t have disabilities, and then there were my disabled friends.
Young: Do you think there was a reason besides just not being involved in the extracurricular activities that you didn’t feel more comfortable with nondisabled people in high school?
Heumann: Yes, because we never had time just to be. I think if there would have been time just to kind of hang out, a neighborhood. I mean, everybody in my neighborhood was nondisabled.
Young: You were feeling comfortable in other nondisabled environments.
Competitiveness of regular classes
Heumann: I think one of the things that went on in high school, one of the very big issues, was that it was competitive. I had been on home instruction until I was in the middle of the fourth grade, and then I went into these separate classes which were non-structured and not a lot of academics going on. I was smart. You know, I have no idea how I learned, because I wasn’t really given much instruction, but when I was doing testing in the fourth and fifth grade, I was reading at a twelfth-grade reading level and things of that nature. So I did a lot of reading at that time. But when I got to high school, when I took the classes with the disabled kids, then I didn’t feel nervous, the classes were small. We had the regular curriculum and were being tested on it, but I didn’t feel as nervous as I did in the regular classes.
Young: How did you do in high school with grades?
Heumann: My grades were in the eighties, I think, right between, depending on the course, but my average was probably something like eighty-six to eighty-eight overall. Then there were a couple of courses that I took stenography, typing, and business law. I loved those courses. They were great. I got, like, ninety-sevens, ninety-eights, ninety-nines.
Young: Did you use any aids to type?
Heumann: No, I was a good typer. I never felt uncomfortable in those classes. Those three classes. Again, I don’t know what it was. Maybe the typing and stenography were different types of courses. There you learned to do it, and it was very tangible, we could do it. You could type, you could type accurately, you could type fast. You could do your stenography, you did it well, you did it fast, you did it accurately. It was kind of very clear, but when it got into the more abstract, I think it was both the issue of abstract and, you know, like in English and math I hadn’t had a lot of the framework for it. So I remember being in classes as they were reviewing what people had learned.
Young: You said, “Wait a minute! I never got that.”
Heumann: Well, no, but that was right. Then I would get really nervous.
Young: And you don’t want to admit it.
Heumann: Right, what was I going to say? Exactly. So I always felt like I was struggling to learn it.
Young: Did the teachers treat you much differently?
Heumann: I don’t feel like the teachers treated me much differently, no, but I remember my parents came home from open school night once and said to me that almost to a teacher had said, “Judy comes to school, she does her homework very well, she participates in class very well, but when she has to take an exam she always looks very nervous.” I selected graduate schools based on schools that didn’t require me to take a graduate exam.
Young: But it doesn’t sound like you, somehow. Why the nervousness with the tests?
Heumann: I don’t know. It’s the grading, it’s the competitiveness, it’s feeling very insecure about getting a wrong answer. But I think it really is because I wasn’t prepared to do it. I mean,I was in such an unstructured environment for so long. My family, you know, we had a very verbal family where we talked a lot, we interacted a lot, we were pretty aggressive in expressing our views. Definitely we had lots of debates, and that I didn’t feel insecure with, but there’s just something about the final analysis of, you know, taking these tests that I’ve never done well on.
Judith Heumann. Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist. (Boston: Beacon Press, 2020), 19-20. ↩︎
Heumann. Being Heumann, 22. ↩︎
Heumann. Being Heumann, 21. ↩︎
Heumann. Being Heumann, 27. ↩︎
Andrew H. Malcolm, “Woman in Wheel Chair Sues to Become Teacher.” The New York Times, May 27, 1970, https://www.nytimes.com/1970/05/27/archives/woman-in-wheel-chair-sues-to-become-teacher.html. ↩︎
Creator: Judith Heumann and Jonathan Young
Source: Judith Heumann, Pioneering Disability Rights Advocate and Leader in Disabled in Action, New York: Center for Independent Living, Berkeley; World Institute on Disability; and the US Department of Education 1960s-2000, an oral history conducted by Susan Brown, David Landes, Jonathan Young in 1998-2001, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2004.
Copyright: Under copyright. Used with permission. Courtesy of the Online Archive of California.
How to cite: “Judy Heumann Oral History,” Judith Heumann and Jonathan Young, in New York City Civil Rights History Project, Accessed: [Month Day, Year], https://nyccivilrightshistory.org/gallery/judy-heumann-oral-history.
Questions to Consider
- How did Judy Heumann describe her emotional state in high school? What were the reasons she described it this way?
- How did she use the courts in her advocacy?
- What parts of Judy Heumann’s story feel familiar to you or are similar to your own experience? What parts are different from your own experience?
How to Print this Page
- Press Ctrl + P or Cmd + P to open the print dialogue window.
- Under settings, choose "display headers and footers" if you want to print page numbers and the web address.
- Embedded PDF files will not print as part of the page. For best printing results, download the PDF and print from Adobe Reader or Preview.