In 1970 Judith “Judy” Heumann became the first woman in a wheelchair to teach a public school in New York City. Seven years later, she led a 28-day sit-in that led to the signing of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act – the first federal civil rights law to protect people with disabilities. Since then, the 73-year-old Heumann has served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations and is an international leader in work for disability rights.
In February 2020, Heumann published her book Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memory of a Disability Rights Activist. On March 2, she will speak publicly at a virtual event hosted by Hillel and hosted by Naomi Hess, a junior at Princeton who is passionate about raising awareness of disability issues in Jewish spaces.
Towards the end of the month on Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion, The Forward spoke to Heumann about the impact of the pandemic on the rights of people with disabilities, their hopes for the Biden government, and how Jewish communities can better raise the voices of their disabled members . The following conversation has been edited slightly for clarity and length.
Synagogues and most Jewish community centers were closed during the pandemic. I previously wrote about how Zoom may open doors to Jewish prayer rooms for some who normally don’t have access. What lessons should Jewish rooms learn from accessibility in the future after the end of the pandemic?
I think we shouldn’t jump to conclusions. I think it’s very obvious that one of the most important things about being able to attend synagogue services all over the country is when they’re doing things virtually. That’s not even a disability-related problem.
The synagogue I go to in DC – Adas Israel – has had the ability to call for many years, not video … This was something I used from time to time when it was really cold outside, maybe I would call . I think moving on virtually can be very important for someone who is sick. He no longer drives whatever it is. But I definitely wouldn’t want things to be mostly virtual. I like going to the synagogue because it’s a place where I can be and think and meditate.
I think what was great about Virtual is that people really look – or have to look – at what we previously thought it might or might not happen, but don’t go to one extreme or the other. While this was very beneficial in some cases, virtual was also difficult for people with certain types of disabilities – the visually impaired and people who are deaf or hard of hearing. [because] There are no subtitles. The universe has expanded in a way that we did not expect before, in a way that forced us to look at things that we had not seen before.
What would you like the Jewish community to increase disability awareness and inclusion beyond pandemic issues?
I think I want it to stop being called “awareness and inclusion”. We’re not saying this for the LGBTQ community or the POC [People of Color] Community … For these communities, I think we have come to realize that we need to address issues of discrimination and inclusion in order to learn what the barriers are, what our feelings are and how we treat people. I think that’s very important.
What I find really interesting is how younger Jewish disabled and non-disabled people are really much more proactive about these issues …
What I want? I really want the younger community to be more influential. In synagogues and other religious groups, the elderly usually play a bigger role. I think it’s really important for younger people to delve into black lives matter, broader communities, and segregation – and talk about what they want and make it part of what we do.
This is a good transition to something else I wanted to ask. There are currently some major movements towards women’s rights and racial justice, and intersectionality issues are cropping up in all of them. I am excited to see how these movements include or do not include people with disabilities.
I think it’s fair to say that we all learn from each other. Disability is really one of the last groups in my opinion … When I look at intersectionality, I still don’t hear other movements regularly talking about disability. I think it’s a combination of separation and isolation from each other.
I learn that disabled people attend their synagogues. But when you really get to a more meaningful discussion, they still don’t feel part of the community because people tell them something or don’t say something or include or don’t include them. I think it’s really about getting people to talk about topics.
I was wondering if you have any specific hopes as to what President Biden’s administration will focus on when it comes to disability.
So first of all, [I hope] that problems of disabled people will spread to every corner of government. Obviously, the leadership within the White House, but also any government agency, really needs to be careful about what they are doing in terms of hiring, promoting, housing their staff, hiring staff, and training their staff. Both domestically and internationally, me [hope that] that as disabled people we do not sit and listen to hear if the word is mentioned. We really want to talk about “Is the word mentioned?” Is there a person with a disability seen or people with invisible disabilities mentioning who they are?
And again, what we discussed a minute ago, the importance of all of our movements and recognizing each other’s movements. I am a disabled Jew. I’m pretty sure about disability related issues. But as a woman, I am still not fully involved in the women’s movement or in the Jewish community. So I think that ultimately we want to be able to move us all forward, which means a very different way of doing business.
Could you elaborate on what you mean by the fact that you are not represented in women’s movements or in Jewish areas?
I just think that something is going on slowly in the women’s movement, including disabled women … I’m old enough that I still watch ads. And I love to watch ads because to me, ads reflect the changes companies believe viewers want to see. And the number of times you see a disabled person on these ads is so insignificant, but you kind of see every combination of people, right? Gay, straight people, interracial couples, people with different religious attire, all sorts of things that really reflect something that I think is showing a significant change – but you don’t see disabled people on a regular basis. I think that as a disabled person we are basically still invisible at the end of the day. It’s not as bad as it was 10 years ago. It gets a little better every year.
Marie-Rose Sheinerman is a news intern at Forward. Contact her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @RoseSheinerman.