For most of her life, Judy Heumann, to use the words of the late Congressman John R. Lewis, has caused “good problems”. She had to. She was born in 1947 and disabled from polio as a toddler. She lived in a world not configured for her in a wheelchair. She has to make waves to find her way. With the unwavering support of beloved parents, German refugees orphaned by the Holocaust, Heumann never believed that she could not achieve what she wanted. Nor did she ever wish that she had no disability. Throughout her life, Heumann was an “optimist” and a “fighter” and was ready to make a “fuss” when barriers block their path and thus open the world to people with disabilities. “We have to accept our humanity”, writes Heumann in her memoir “Being Heumann”, “and shape our world around it.”
Reading these memoirs is like sitting down with a good friend and talking for hours while the self-described extrovert Heumann shares powerful and engaging stories from the frontline of the civil rights movement for the disabled. For many in the disabled community, Heumann is an icon. In recent years, she has gained greater notoriety with her central role in the critically acclaimed 2020 documentary Crip Camp. Nevertheless, Heumann emphasizes at the beginning: “Everything I have done in my life I could never have done alone.” The following pages introduce readers to a convincing who’s who of civil rights activists with disabilities as well as their family and friends.
Her book is written in crisp prose and contains reports on Heumann’s life experiences, which are arranged chronologically – the first two thirds cover her first eventful and consistent thirty years. At some points Heumann pauses briefly to reflect on her feelings or assessments of the current situation and provides critical insights not only from the perspective of a disability, but also as a white Jewish woman who grew up in America before the 20th century Word “intersectionality” existed. She realizes that when most of the world sees her in her wheelchair, false assumptions are instantly established, including perceptions of loss and limitation. Early on in her legal profession, she learned that she “has to help people to overcome their somewhat automatic mental block in order to see life as a disabled person. Storytelling made it possible for people to see things through our eyes. “
When Heumann grew up in America after World War II, attitudes towards disability began to change. For nearly two centuries, a “medical model” of disability prevailed, which viewed disability as an individual problem caused by illness or disorder that required medical attention. When medical care couldn’t cure the disability, people had to adapt and adapt to the loss. But returning veterans, young survivors (mostly men) disabled by war injuries, had no intention of withdrawing from life. They often requested and were given shelter so that they could work and participate in daily activities.
In her early years, Heumann fell straight into the medical model. The doctor advised her parents to institutionalize her, but they refused, believing “that most things are possible if you assume that problems can be solved”. Her career of causing good problems began at the age of five after her kindergarten in Brooklyn refused entry, claiming “Judy is a fire hazard.” Chapters 1 through 3 document Heumann’s struggle for an apprenticeship and a teacher . The high point was winning her 1970 lawsuit against the New York City Board of Education, which denied her a license to teach because of her disability.
Soon after, Heumann moved to Berkeley, California, where disability rights attorneys, including the legendary who recruited them Ed Roberts, promoted the “social model”. This model regards disability as the handicap of the individual through barriers in social and physical environments and therefore requires social change from a human rights perspective. At its core, Heumann is an agent for social change. Chapters 5 through 8 tell the turning story of the 1977 protest led by Heumann, in which more than 100 people with disabilities occupied the San Francisco Federal Building for four weeks to force the Carter administration to enforce regulations Sign implementation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act 1973 – which gives people with disabilities equal access to federal programs and is the forerunner of the Disabled Americans Act of 1990. As conditions in the building deteriorated (for example, the hot water was turned off), the protesters put their health at risk to reach their end, despite the Black Panthers’ daily grocery deliveries ensuring they did not starve!
Heumann’s career was less cinematic, but extremely influential. As detailed in the following chapters, she held senior positions in the Clinton administration’s Department of Education, the World Bank, and the Obama administration’s State Department for many years. (She views the Affordable Care Act as Obama’s greatest legacy for people with disabilities, as it removes pre-existing state constraints.) The book conveys her inexhaustible energy and laser-focused intent. Everywhere she went – in the USA and worldwide – Heumann opened doors for people with disabilities. “That’s one thing about me,” she writes. “I persist. I insist on speaking. When one is heard. “
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