One Book, One Region author Judith Heumann at Conn College Thursday
The One Book, One Region 2022 reading initiative for southeastern Connecticut wraps up its 20th campaign Thursday in Palmer Auditorium on the campus of New London’s Connecticut College. Author and disability rights activist Judith Heumann, whose memoir, “Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist,” is this year’s selection, will discuss the book with Connecticut College Associate Professor of Sociology Jennifer Rudolph in an interactive Q&A session on stage.
“Being Heumann” is a remarkable story of perseverance, commitment and a life well-lived by a woman who was paralyzed by polio at 18 months old. Heumann recounts with candor, warmth and wit the challenges she and other young persons with disabilities faced in their attempts simply to get an education after she was denied entrance to elementary school for being “a fire hazard.”
A graduate of Long Island University with a 1975 master’s in public health from the University of California at Berkeley, Heumann was one of the key organizers and participants of the 504 Sit-in, where people with disabilities occupied federal buildings in San Francisco to protest long delays in the issuance of improvements mandated in the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The Sit-in was successful in not only drawing global attention to the cause but also in streamlining a variety of improvements in government buildings.
Heumann also co-founded the World Institute on Disability; served in the Clinton Administration as the Assistant Secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services in the Department of Education; served as the World Bank’s first Advisor on Disability and Development; and in 2010 was appointed by President Obama as the first Special Advisor of International Disability Rights at the U.S. Department of State.
She has and continues to be active and instrumental in the development and passage of legislation, and most recently was featured in “Crip Camp,” the 2020 documentary, executive produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, about a revolutionary summer camp for young persons with various disabilities who were able to learn about and discuss life and coming of age with each other.
On Monday, Heumann spoke about her life and “Being Heumann” in anticipation of her Connecticut College appearance. Here are some of her remarks, edited for space and clarity.
Q: Your parents seemed to be visionary, refusing to consider institutionalizing you – as was typical at the time – and encouraging your education and independence. Talk a bit about their efforts. Was their approach, which was considered radical at the time, now more common among parents of children with disabilities?
A: I think there has been a significant turning point with people recognizing what was really going on at that time, and I’m not surprised my parents were not going to accept that. If you look back historically, what my parents did in fighting for my rights to an education, they were very much on the cutting edge.
My mother got involved with the schools and school board and working with other parents to make high school accessible for us. The way it was, if you couldn’t get up the steps, you couldn’t go to school. And what happened was, an overall parents movement for other disabled kids was becoming stronger. Ultimately, what they were doing through their advocacy supported my becoming an advocate, and I think you’ll find a lot more activism in contemporary parents. Things have very much improved, though of course there’s still a great deal of work to do.
Q: When you meet with people born well after the creation of the Americans with Disabilities Act—who have always known of and/or received accommodations — is there anything in particular they can’t believe didn’t exist? So many things seem to be no-brainers — curb cutouts, elevators in public buildings, accessible public transport, accessible doors … But they weren’t around when your activism began, and it suggests that things move slowly, right?
A: One quick, general answer is that, yes, some people are somewhat aware of what happened in the past. Others just didn’t know that buildings weren’t accessible. There were a lot of discriminations – not just against people with disabilities -- and people don’t understand the depth of the history. Discrimination takes a long time to manifest itself and a long time to be eradicated. Race and gender and disability discrimination have been separately categorized despite a significant overlapping. At the same time, we were one of the last groups that had laws saying we can’t be discriminated against based on disability. Obviously, it still happens – but it’s slowly improving through a great amount of work.
Q: You are featured in the documentary “Crip Camp.” What can you tell us about the film?
A: It gives a very good history of the disability rights movement from the 1970s through the 2000s. It was nominated for an Oscar and won an award at Sundance. It won several awards. It’s streaming on Netflix now, and the thing is, it’s a very accessible film. It’s funny, it’s human. There’s a special quality to it because we were young disabled people meeting other people who were disabled, and it was a different type of experience, a different sort of communication.
Q: With the backward steps America seems to be taking with other civil liberties — women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, etc. — do you have concerns about rollbacks of the disability rights you fought so hard for?
A: Disabled people are a part of all these groups. Roe v Wade has and is having significant effects. One fact about all these movements based on race or gender or disability is that we ALL come from these groups in one way or another. And what the Supreme Court has done with this decision is to have a dangerously negative effect on people who are disabled. The issue of someone who is physically or intellectually unable to travel to another state is an enormous issue. Other cases potentially moving forward could have negative effects on disability and take away right to file complaints.
But, again, one of the important aspects pre-Americans with Disabilities Act and post-ADA has been that the civil rights and disabilities communities have been working more closely together. Our leadership communities and our lives are together and our issues mirror each other’s. Hopefully, in light of the recent decisions, we’re even more likely to form a broad community to fight against what the court is doing. We have to fight against this. We have to learn from these historical examples and make sure we don’t go backward, and these things don’t reoccur.
Q: In the book and throughout your career, you’ve always made sure to give other people credit for the roles they played in garnering civil rights for people with disabilities. Is there anyone who has taken up the mantle in recent years that we should have on our radar? And is it gratifying to see people like Greta Thunberg celebrated as a person with a disability (autism) who is an activist for another cause (in Greta’s case, fighting climate change)?
A: Certainly (actress) Selma Blair’s efforts are very great in terms of people who have spoken up and out about their disability in a positive and honest way. But it’s gratifying that so many are really making their disabilities and extensive part of the work they’re doing.
Yes, Greta Thurnberg. (Actresses) Marlee Matlin and Ali Stroke. Alice Wong and her book “Year of the Tiger.” So many more. There are a lot of current disabled woman very active in the movement.
If you go
Who: Judith Heumann, author of “Being Huemann – An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist”
What: The finale event of the 2022 One Book, One Region readers initiative for southeastern Connecticut
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Athey Center for Performance and Research, Palmer Auditorium, Connecticut College, 270 Mohegan Ave., New London
How much: Free
For more information: www.events.conncoll.edu, (860) 447-1911