Judith “Judy” Heumann, contracted Polio as a child in 1949 which left her unable to walk. When she was old enough to go to school, the principal of the public school denied her entry–citing that she was a fire hazard–because she used a wheelchair. She also could not go to the movies, was asked to leave restaurants and could barely get across the street to meet her friends. As a college graduate, she was (initially) denied a teaching license because she couldn’t walk.
Thankfully, many of the obstacles she faced no longer exist, but the fight to gain civil rights for folks with disabilities was hard fought. Heumann was a leader in the campaign to have the Section 504 Rehabilitation Act of 1973 signed and implemented and to have the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 passed. Heumann’s story, and the story of other people with disabilities’ fight for civil rights is explored in James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham’s documentary, Crip Camp, available on Netflix. There are many lessons to be learned in this film, especially for those of us working in web accessibility.
The Rehabilitation Act, which was initially vetoed in 1972 by President Nixon, was said to be too expensive. William Ronan of the New York City Transit Authority agreed with Nixon, saying, “It would just be impossible, in terms of it’s financial cost, to put in elevators and ramps in all these [subway and transportation] stations…The problem here is, as with all of this question, how many people would really be served by it?”
What Mr. Ronan didn’t understand back in the early 1970s was that hundreds of thousands would have been served by the accessible upgrades to the NYC transportation system, because accessibility benefits everyone. Even after almost 50 years, there are STILL services and spaces that are not fully accessible, including websites and other electronic systems that many of us rely on.
Heumann is still a prominent disability advocate and recently talked about her book on the Daily Show With Trevor Noah (video below). She pointed out one of the biggest misconceptions about accessibility: “[In the D.C. Metro] some of the most frequent users of the elevators are men and women who have babies in baby carriages. So, I think we really need to also look at the kinds of accommodations that theoretically have been made for disabled people [and how they] actually benefit so many other people.”
Trevor Noah: Can I just say, reading-reading this book, I expected to be impressed by it, but I wasn’t quite expecting-for how much of a badass you would be.
Judy Heumann: (chuckles)
Noah: Um, no, because you-you don’t just advocate for human rights and-and rights for people with disabilities, but-but you fight for them and you fight for them with a passion. Welcome to the show. Before I get into my first question, I-I guess what really blew my mind about your story is that I, specifically, have taken for granted so many things in life that I feel like were always there–ramps, you know, for getting into stores, uh, you know, ramps that help people get into buses when traveling, all-all measures that we put in place to help everybody be part of society. You lived in a world where that wasn’t true, and you fought to make those changes. What was that world like, before the world we live in today?
Heumann: So, I grew up in Brooklyn–all of you from Brooklyn– and, um..
Audience: (cheering and applause)
Heumann: At that time– So, I was born in 1947. I had polio in 1949. There were no laws. There were no federal laws that made it illegal to discriminate against many people.
Noah: Mmm hmm
Heumann: Obviously, the Civil Rights Act in the U.S. didn’t come about till 1964, and the disability community was not included in that. So, my world was A) there were no motorized wheelchairs at that time, ’cause the technology wasn’t there.
Heuman: And so, um, I lived in a neighborhood where there were small private homes, and I couldn’t get across the street by myself, because there w– there was a step on either side.
Heumann: And, um, still a problem today. Housing is not necessarily accessible, so, you’ll see in the book where I talk about going from my parent’s house to my neighbor’s house, and having to scream into the house to ask my friend to come out and play. But, um, as I got older, it became a bigger problem, because the school in our neighborhood was not accessible. My mother took me to that school, um– P.S. 198. At that time, it wasn’t accessible. After the laws came into being, in 1981, it was renovated. The school became accessible. But the principal denied me entrance into the school because I couldn’t walk, and he said I could be a fire hazard. But said not to worry because the Board of Education -would send a teacher to my house.
Heumann: Which they did for a total of two and a half hours a week for the first, second, third and half of the fourth grade. So, I think you can see, um, that the landscape has changed in many ways. Movie theatres weren’t accessible. Um, I went to a Chinese restaurant once with a group of friends in wheelchairs, and the manager told us we had to leave. And that’s when I get really fired up, so there really is…I-I… It kind of comes out of me. And I thought, “We’re not leaving. But I can’t just kind of say ‘We’re not leaving.'” So I said, “Call the police.” And the guy was, like…And I said, “We’re not leaving. Call the police.” And of course, he didn’t call the police.
Heumann: Then we stayed there. But, um, I think what’s really important…
Audience: (applause and cheering)
Noah: It…It-it feels like that-that’s been the story of your life, though, is-is definitely, you know, reminding people, or-or even exposing to people how many obstacles so many people in our society face. You know, as an able-bodied person, I take so many things for granted. We take things for granted where…
Heumann:I call you “non-disabled,” actually.
Noah: You call me “non-disabled”? Oh. I never know which term it is, to be honest, because in the book…
Heumann: I call you “non-disabled” because we also, um…Because the likelihood of you acquiring a disability, uh, temporarily or permanently is statistically very high, so…
Noah: Did you just threaten me?
Heumann: Yes. Definitely.
Noah: Um… you-you…We take for granted, though, either way, how… how little it changes our lives if we don’t have disabilities, versus how much of an impact it makes positively in other people’s lives. Children can go to schools, children can-can meet with friends and associates, people can go to work, people can live independently. You realized that there was a deficiency in America at that time, and there’s still a lot of work to be done.
Noah: The protests that you…that you… that you helped put together, though, were something no one had ever thought of before. We saw a little bit of it in that clip, but…you decided to shut New York down, basically. This is a very funny story.
Heumann: Um…I have a lot of funny stories. But anyway…
Heumann: So, um, President Nixon had vetoed the Rehabilitation Act, which has this important set of laws in it under Title V. And we had organized a disa… a demonstration in Manhattan outside a federal building. But because the buses weren’t accessible and the trains weren’t accessible, we weren’t able to get anybody to go out and scope out this building.
Heumann: Well, it turns out this building is probably the only building in the city where there’s virtually no traffic around it. And we were having a demonstration, and we went and sat in the street, and nobody really cared, ’cause there were hardly any cars. And so– but the police were there, and they said, “What would you like?” And they wanted us to leave. And I said, “Well, where is Nixon headquarters?” So the officer literally called in and said, “Where is Nixon headquarters?” So we took the 50 of us, and we got over to Nixon headquarters. It was on Madison Avenue.
Audience: (applause, cheering)
Heumann: It was… it was completely unplanned. And so there we were, 50 of us,
Heumann: from Brooklyn and Queens and Manhattan and the Bronx, and we decided, okay, we’re gonna shut down the streets. And what you didn’t show in the clip is Ann Cappolo, who is a little bit more than three feet tall, who’s talking about how… there we were, sitting…like, shutting off all of the Madison Avenue area.
Heumann:Then we pulled back, because it was a little scary with all these trucks pissed off about how we were shutting down the city. But nonetheless, we were able to do it. But what I think is really important about my story is that my story isn’t my story. So, my story is really the story of many other people,
Heumann: and Kristen Joiner, who helped me write this book, ’cause it wouldn’t have come to being without her. Um, friends of mine with disabilities living in different parts of the world, they’re also talking about how this is their story. Because the issue of discrimination and oppression and, um, how our lives have been limited, and how people are really gaining back our voices. And I think one of the important parts of the film Crip Camp -that people will see
Heuman: …is a camp where disabled kids went together and how, you know, we went to a camp and we had fun, but we also really used it as an opportunity to be together, because in so many ways disabled people are isolated from each other. And so the camp really allowed us to…begin to fantasize what we wanted the world to look like, and then also began to question why things weren’t happening. And, I think that really has been the crux of what’s gone on in the United States and South Africa-and countries around the world.
Heumann: Where people have finally said, “We are not gonna tolerate this anymore.”
Noah: It-it’s been 30 years now since the American Disabilities Act was passed. Many would feel like everything has been done and everyone has access to what they need. What do you still feel needs to be improved specifically in the United States?
Heumann: So, I think in the United States and around the world one of the big issues is that people with disabilities need to feel proud of who we are. Um, we need not to be ashamed of who we are. Many, many people with disabilities have invisible disabilities, like epilepsy or diabetes or depression, or, um, anxiety or whatever the disability may be. And, people are frequently afraid of speaking up because of the stigma, and what we find when we start speaking up about who we are with pride and-and really ownership–that we have a right to be equal members of our society wherever we live– that really makes a change.So, I would say that the law is great. Needs more implementation, more technical assistance. There are other provisions of laws that we need to have, but, fundamentally, we as disabled people and as allies–like I know you are, ’cause you’ve done some great work on your program, the mental health piece that you did-was fantastic, um..
Heumann: Oh, thank you.
Audience: (applause and cheering)
Heumann: That’s really, I think, what the objective is, that we as disabled people need to band together,
speak out against d-depression– oppression, or discrimination against anyone, and that needs to be the norm. And, I want to just also say, you know, I live in D.C. And, the metro there, uh, some of the most frequent users of the elevators are men and women-who have babies in baby carriages.
Heumann: So, I think we really need to also look at the kinds of accommodations that theoretically have been made for disabled people -actually benefit so many other people.
Noah: Oh, right, right.
Heumann: And, people don’t even realize why they’re there.
Audience: (applause and cheering)
Noah: That’s really beautiful. I, I honest– I loved every part of your story because of how fierce it is, because of how funny it is, because of how interesting it is, because of how much you learn– I mean, I learned about stories in and around the Disabilities Act; the story of America. And, I learned there was once a time in New York, when there was no traffic on some streets. So, thank you so much for being on the show. I appreciate you so much for being here. Being Heumann, a beautiful tale from real life is available now, and Netflix will feature Crip Camp beginning March 25. Judith Heumann, everybody!
Just as schools, subways, public buildings and restrooms were not originally built with accessibility in mind, websites were/are not built with equitable infrastructure. And just as updating the NYC Transit system took money, time and work, so will shifting the web towards full accessibility. We can’t make folks who NEED better access fight for it again, it’s our job to build and produce with accessible standards– and you will save time and money by avoiding a lawsuit.