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TEDxMidAtlantic

Judith Heumann: Our fight for disability rights -- and why we're not done yet

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Four decades ago, Judith Heumann helped to lead a groundbreaking protest called the Section 504 sit-in -- in which disabled-rights activists occupied a federal building for almost a month, demanding greater accessibility for all. In this personal, inspiring talk, Heumann tells the stories behind the protest -- and reminds us that, 40 years on, there's still work left to do.

- Disability rights activist
Judith Heumann is a lifelong advocate for the rights of disabled people. Full bio

I was born in 1947, a long time ago,
00:12
and when I was 18 months old, I had polio.
00:17
I was in an iron lung for three months
00:21
and in and out of the hospital
for three years.
00:24
Now, we had lots of neighbors
in our Brooklyn neighborhood,
00:27
and some of them were really
very helpful for my parents.
00:31
Some of them were really
afraid of contagion,
00:35
and they wouldn't even walk
in front of our house.
00:39
They would literally
walk across the street.
00:42
I think this was a time
when my family really began to realize
00:45
what disability meant to some people:
00:50
fear.
00:53
And it wasn't even a sure thing
that I would live at home,
00:55
although I didn't learn about this
until I was 36 years old.
00:59
I was having a discussion
with my father one night,
01:02
and he said, "You know,
when you were two years old,
01:05
one of the doctors
suggested to your mom and I
01:08
that you live in an institution,
01:11
that they could just
go ahead with their lives
01:14
and raise their kids
01:17
and kind of be done with having to deal
with all the disability-related things.
01:18
I didn't believe my father,
not because he was a liar,
01:23
but I'd never heard this story,
01:27
and my mother in fact validated that.
01:29
She never wanted to tell me.
01:32
But in reality, I don't know why
I was really surprised by this story,
01:34
because when I was five years old,
01:38
and my mother, like mothers and fathers
all across the United States,
01:41
was taking me to school to enroll,
01:45
she pushed my wheelchair to the school
in walking distance to our house,
01:48
pulled the wheelchair
up the steps into the school,
01:53
and we were greeted by the principal.
01:56
Not really greeted.
01:58
But the principal said,
no, I couldn't come to that school
02:00
because it wasn't accessible.
02:04
But he told us not to worry,
02:07
because the Board of Education in fact
would send a teacher to my house.
02:10
And they did
02:15
for a total of two and a half hours
02:17
a week.
02:20
(Audience murmurs)
02:22
But for good behavior,
02:23
they threw in an occupational therapist
02:25
who taught me that very essential skill
02:28
of cross-stitching.
02:31
(Laughter)
02:33
I don't cross-stitch today.
02:34
(Laughter)
02:35
I didn't actually get to go to school
in a real building
02:38
until I was nine years old,
02:42
and then I was in classes
only with disabled children
02:44
in a school that had
mainly nondisabled children.
02:47
And in my classes,
02:50
there were students up to the age of 21.
02:52
And then, after 21,
02:56
they went to something
called sheltered workshops
02:58
with menial work
03:02
and earning either nothing
or below minimum wage.
03:03
So I understood discrimination.
03:07
My parents understood discrimination.
03:10
My parents came from Germany.
03:13
They were German Jews
who left in the 1930s,
03:16
escaping the Holocaust.
03:19
My parents lost family
and they lost parents.
03:21
Both my parents lost
their parents in the Holocaust.
03:25
And so they realized
03:29
that they could not be silent
03:31
as things were going wrong
for me in my life.
03:33
Not me personally,
03:36
but what was going on around me.
03:38
They learned that because
I used a wheelchair,
03:40
none of the high schools
in New York City, in the entire city,
03:44
were wheelchair accessible,
03:47
so what was supposed to happen
03:49
is I was supposed to go
back onto home instruction
03:52
along with many other students.
03:55
So my parents banded together
with other parents.
03:58
They went to the Board of Education
04:03
and they demanded that the Board of Ed
make some of the high schools accessible.
04:05
And they did.
04:09
And so I and many others
04:11
were finally able to go to high school,
a regular high school,
04:14
and take regular classes.
04:17
So what happened next?
04:20
I was learning more and more
about what discrimination was,
04:23
and equally important, I was learning
that I needed to become my own advocate.
04:26
I was entering college,
Long Island University,
04:31
and I had always wanted to be a teacher,
04:35
and so I minored in education
and I took all the appropriate courses,
04:37
and then when it was time
for me to go for my license,
04:43
I had to take a written exam,
04:47
an oral exam
04:49
and a medical exam.
04:51
At that time, all three of those exams
04:53
were given in completely
inaccessible buildings,
04:56
so I had friends who carried me
up and down the steps
05:00
for these exams,
05:04
not in a motorized wheelchair.
05:06
(Laughter)
05:07
In a manual wheelchair.
05:08
But I passed my oral exam.
05:11
I passed my written exam.
05:14
My medical exam was something
completely different.
05:16
One of the first questions
the doctor asked me
05:21
was, could I please show her
how I went to the bathroom.
05:24
I was 22 years old
05:31
and you know when you go
for any kind of an interview,
05:33
you think about all the kinds
of questions that people could ask you?
05:36
(Laughter)
05:39
That was not one of them.
05:41
And I was freaked out in the first place
05:43
because I had heard
05:46
that there were actually
no disabled people using wheelchairs
05:47
who were teachers in New York,
05:51
so each step along the way
I was expecting something bad.
05:53
So I said to her,
05:57
is it a requirement
that teachers show their students
05:59
how to go to the bathroom?
06:01
If it is, I can do that.
06:04
So no surprise,
06:07
I was failed
06:09
because I didn't pass the medical.
06:11
The official reason
that I was denied my job
06:13
was paralysis of poliomyelitis
sequelae of -- I'm sorry.
06:17
Paralysis of both lower limbs,
sequelae of poliomyelitis.
06:24
Honestly, I didn't know
what the word "sequelae" meant,
06:28
so I went to the dictionary,
and it meant "because of."
06:31
So I'd been denied my license
because I couldn't walk.
06:34
So what was I going to do?
06:38
This is a really important
time in my life,
06:41
because it would be the first time
06:44
that I really would be
challenging the system, me,
06:46
and although I was working with a lot
of other friends who had disabilities
06:50
who were encouraging me
to move forward with this,
06:54
it was nonetheless quite frightening.
06:57
But I was really very lucky.
06:59
I had a friend who was a disabled student
at Long Island University
07:01
and was also a stringer
at the "New York Times,"
07:05
and he was able to get a reporter
07:08
to write a really good piece
about what had happened
07:11
and why he thought
what had happened was wrong.
07:15
The next day there was an editorial
in the "New York Times"
07:18
with the title of
"Human v. The Board of Education"
07:23
and the "New York Times"
came out in support
07:26
of my getting my teaching license.
07:28
(Applause)
07:30
And then the same day,
07:34
I got a call from an attorney
who was writing a book about civil rights.
07:36
And he was calling me to interview me,
07:41
and I was interviewing him.
07:44
He didn't know that.
07:46
And at the end of our discussion, I said,
07:47
"Would you be willing to represent me?
I want to sue the Board of Education."
07:50
And he said yes.
07:54
Now, sometimes I say that the stars
were aligned around this court case,
07:56
because we had an amazing judge:
08:01
the first African American
female federal judge --
08:05
(Laughter)
08:10
Constance Baker Motley.
08:12
(Applause)
08:14
And she knew discrimination
when she saw it.
08:20
(Laughter)
08:24
So she strongly encouraged the Board of Ed
08:27
to give me another medical exam,
08:31
which they did.
08:34
And then I got my license,
08:36
and while it took a number of months
08:39
for me to actually get a principal
to offer me a job,
08:41
I finally did get a job
and I started teaching that fall
08:44
in the same school that I had gone to,
08:48
second grade.
08:51
So --
08:53
(Applause)
08:54
That's a whole other TED Talk.
08:58
(Laughter)
08:59
But I was learning as my friends were,
09:01
and people I didn't know
around the country,
09:05
that we had to be our own advocates,
09:08
that we needed to fight back people's view
09:11
that if you had a disability,
you needed to be cured,
09:15
that equality was not
part of the equation.
09:18
And we were learning
from the Civil Rights Movement
09:22
and from the Women's Rights Movement.
09:25
We were learning from them
about their activism
09:27
and their ability to come together,
09:30
not only to discuss problems
09:32
but to discuss solutions.
09:35
And what was born is what we call today
the Disability Rights Movement.
09:37
So I'd like to tell you
a couple of riddles.
09:42
How many people do you think it takes
09:46
to stop traffic on Madison Avenue
09:50
during rush hour in New York City?
09:53
Do you have a guess? How many?
09:56
(Audience members shout out answers)
09:58
Fifty.
10:01
One would be too little.
10:03
Fifty people.
10:06
And there were no accessible paddy wagons,
10:07
so they had to just kind of deal with us.
10:10
(Laughter)
10:12
(Applause)
10:15
But let me tell you another riddle.
10:17
How many people does it take
to stop a bus in New York City
10:19
when they refuse to let you on
because you're in a wheelchair?
10:24
One. That is the right answer.
10:29
So what you have to do though
10:31
is take your wheelchair --
10:34
(Laughter)
10:36
Sidle in the right place
right in front of the steps
10:39
and give it a little push underneath,
10:43
and then their bus can't move.
10:46
(Laughter)
10:48
Any of you who want
to learn how to do that,
10:52
talk to me after this.
10:55
(Laughter)
10:56
In 1972, President Nixon
vetoed the Rehabilitation Act.
10:58
We protested. He signed it.
11:05
Then the regulations that needed
to be promulgated to implement that law
11:09
had not in fact been signed.
11:14
We demonstrated. They were signed.
11:16
And when the Americans
With Disabilities Act, the ADA,
11:19
our Emancipation Proclamation Act,
11:23
looked as though it might not
in fact be passed in the House or Senate,
11:26
disabled people from all across
the United States came together
11:32
and they crawled up the Capitol steps.
11:36
That was an amazing day,
11:41
and the House and Senate passed the ADA.
11:44
And then President Bush signed the ADA.
11:48
It's a great picture.
11:54
President Bush signed the ADA
on the lawn of the White House.
11:55
It was an amazing day,
11:59
and there are about 2,000 people there.
12:01
It was July 26, 1990.
12:05
And one of the most famous
statements he had in his speech
12:09
was, "Let the shameful walls
of exclusion finally come tumbling down."
12:13
For any of you in the room
12:20
who are 50 or older,
or maybe or even 40 or older,
12:22
you remember a time when
there were no ramps on the streets,
12:25
when buses were not accessible,
12:28
when trains were not accessible,
12:30
where there were no wheelchair-accessible
bathrooms in shopping malls,
12:32
where you certainly did not have
a sign language interpreter,
12:36
or captioning, or braille
or other kinds of supports.
12:39
These things have changed,
12:44
and they have inspired the world.
12:46
And disabled people around the world
want laws like we have,
12:48
and they want those laws enforced.
12:53
And so what we've seen is something called
12:56
the Convention on the Rights
of Persons with Disabilities.
12:59
It is a treaty that was adopted in 2006.
13:03
It's celebrating is 10-year anniversary.
13:07
More than 165 countries
have joined this treaty.
13:11
It is the first international
human rights treaty
13:16
fully focused on disabled people.
13:20
But I am sad to say that our US Senate
13:23
has failed to recommend to our president
that we ratify the treaty.
13:27
We signed it in 2009,
13:32
but it doesn't come
into force until ratification,
13:35
and the president --
no president can ratify a treaty
13:40
without the consent of the Senate.
13:43
So we feel really strongly
13:46
that our US Senate needs to do its job,
13:50
that our Senate needs
to enable us as Americans
13:53
not only to be able to assist disabled
people and governments around the world
13:57
to learn about the good work
that we've been doing,
14:02
but it's equally important
14:06
that disabled people
have the same opportunities
14:08
to travel, study and work abroad
14:12
as anyone else in our country.
14:16
And as long as many countries
don't have the same laws as we do
14:18
and don't enforce them if they have them,
14:22
opportunities for disabled people
are more limited.
14:25
When I travel abroad,
14:29
I am always meeting with disabled women,
14:31
and those women tell me stories
14:34
about how they experience
violence and rape
14:37
and how in many cases
these forms of violence
14:41
occur from family members
and people that they know,
14:45
who in fact may be working for them.
14:50
And frequently these cases
are not adjudicated.
14:53
I meet disabled people
14:56
who have been offered jobs by businesses
14:58
because they live in a country
where there's a quota system,
15:03
and in order to avoid a fine,
15:06
they will hire you
15:09
and then tell you,
15:11
"You don't need to come to work
15:12
because we really don't need you
in the facility."
15:14
I have visited institutions
15:18
where the stench of urine is so strong
15:21
that before you open
the door of your vehicle,
15:25
you're kind of pushed back,
15:28
and then gone into those institutions
15:30
where people should be living
in the community with appropriate supports
15:33
and seen people almost naked,
15:38
people who are chemically drugged
15:41
and people who are living
lives of despair.
15:43
These are some of the things that the US
needs to be doing more to correct.
15:47
We know discrimination when we see it,
15:53
and we need to be fighting it together.
15:56
So what is it that we can
be doing together?
15:59
I encourage you all to recognize
16:03
that disability is a family
you can join at any point in your life.
16:06
I'd like to see by a show of hands
how many of you have ever broken a bone?
16:12
And then, when you leave today, I'd like
you to maybe write a couple of sentences
16:18
about what that period of time
has been like for you,
16:23
because frequently I hear from people,
16:27
"You know, I couldn't do this,
I couldn't do that.
16:30
People talked to me differently.
They acted differently towards me."
16:33
And that's what I see
and other disabled people see
16:37
in flashing letters.
16:41
But we -- you in this room,
16:43
people listening
and watching this TED Talk --
16:46
together we can make a difference.
16:49
Together we can speak up for justice.
16:52
Together we can help change the world.
16:56
Thank you. I have to go catch my bus.
16:59
(Applause)
17:02

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About the speaker:

Judith Heumann - Disability rights activist
Judith Heumann is a lifelong advocate for the rights of disabled people.

Why you should listen

Judith (Judy) Heumann contracted polio in 1949 in Brooklyn, NY and began to experience discrimination at five years old when she was denied the right to attend school because she was a "fire hazard." Her parents played a strong role in fighting for her rights as a child. Heumann determined that she, working in collaboration with other disabled people, had to play an increasing advocacy role as she and others experienced continuous discrimination because of their disabilities. She is now an internationally recognized leader in the disability rights community and a lifelong civil rights advocate. As a Senior Fellow at the Ford Foundation, she is currently working to help advance the inclusion of disability in the Foundation’s work and is leading a project to advance the inclusion of disabled people in the media.  

President Obama appointed Heumann as the first Special Advisor for International Disability Rights at the US Department of State, where she served from 2010-2017. Prior to this position, she served as the Director for the Department on Disability Services for the District of Columbia, where she was responsible for the Developmental Disability Administration and the Rehabilitation Services Administration.

From June 2002- 2006, Heumann served as the World Bank's first Adviser on Disability and Development. In this position, she led the World Bank's disability work to expand the Bank’s knowledge and capability to work with governments and civil society on including disability in the global conversation. From 1993 to 2001, Heumann served in the Clinton Administration as the Assistant Secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services in the Department of Education. She was also responsible for the implementation of legislation at the national level for programs in special education, disability research, vocational rehabilitation and independent living, serving more than 8 million youth and adults with disabilities.

Heumann graduated from Long Island University in Brooklyn, NY in 1969 and received her Master’s in Public Health from the University of California at Berkeley in 1975. Her goal in life is to continue to advance the rights and empowerment of ALL disabled people around the world. She is also currently building an online presence through The Heumann Perspective which can found on FacebookYouTube and Twitter.

More profile about the speaker
Judith Heumann | Speaker | TED.com