Judy Heumann, a disability civil rights activist, shared this important lesson in her memoir Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist: “telling our stories helps strengthen our ability to continue to fight injustice. Sharing the stories about how we want our world to be – and then turning these dreams and visions into reality – is what we must all commit to doing.” Judy Heumann led one of the sit-ins to advocate for the passing of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and led the advocacy strategy that led to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). She continues to be an active member of the disability rights movement.
As an individual with a learning disability, Judy Heumann’s book resonated with me as I have learned how critical it is for individuals with disabilities to share our stories and advocate for what we need to be successful, knowing that our disability does not define who we are or what we are capable of achieving. Judy’s memoir reminds readers that the disability rights movement is part of our ongoing movement to promote inclusion and equity in today’s society. In the memoir, Judy describes her upbringing: “though my life wasn’t marked with the little “White Only” signs that signaled segregation in the South, the life I lived was also a segregated one. Of course I didn’t understand this for a long time, shielded as I was by the love of my family and friends.” It is important to remember that everyone’s experience with a disability is different, there is no single story which is why readers from all backgrounds will benefit from reading this memoir.
Judy Heumann’s memoir is a descriptive account of how she persisted through challenges as a woman with a disability, from not being able to receive her teaching license in New York due to her disability to becoming a fearless advocate for individuals with disabilities today. As Judy explains, “when other people see you as a third-class citizen, the first thing you need is a belief in yourself and the knowledge that you have rights. The next thing you need is a group of friends to fight back with.” Judy and others whom she worked closely with led the sit-in at the San Francisco office of the Federal Department of Health, Education, and Welfare for 24 days. In the book, she states, “the truth is, the status quo loves to say no. It is the easiest thing in the world to say no, especially in the world of business and finance. But for the first time we were discussing civil rights, and no other civil rights issue has ever been questioned because of the cost.” The disability civil rights activists during this time held the government accountable for not making regulations flexible and ensuring equal opportunities for individuals with disabilities.
Judy’s memoir provides an insight into the challenges she overcame as well as the historic government legislation that disability activists have pushed for to be inclusive of individuals with disabilities. As part of the Non Verbal Learning Disability (NVLD) community, we need to continue to advocate for understanding and acceptance of NVLD so that it can be included in the DSM-5. Judy did not let her disability define her success and members of the NVLD community should continue to challenge stereotypes that come with NVLD as individuals with NVLD are verbal despite what the name indicates. I highly recommend Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist to anyone who is seeking to learn more about the disability civil rights movement and the story of how Judy Heumann challenged stereotypes of being an individual with a disability and advocated for inclusion. I believe that you will learn transferable ways that you can be involved in the disability social justice movement so you can continue to increase equality for individuals with NVLD in the community.
Heumann, J. (2020). Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.Share your own story