Beacon Press: Disability
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Recommended Reading In Disability

A Disability History of the United States
Being Heumann
Enabling Acts
In Sickness and in Health

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AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT

Judith Heumann

Judith Heumann

Judith Heumann is an internationally recognized leader in the Disability Rights Independent Living Movement. Her work with a wide range of activist organizations, NGOs, and governments since the 1970s has contributed greatly to the development of human rights legislation and policy benefiting disabled people.
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Being Heumann:An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist

How We’re Silenced and the Power of Judy Heumann by Kristen Joiner

Judy Heumann isn’t nice.

Let me be clear.

Judy Heumann, one of the most transformative disability rights leaders of our time, is very friendly. Just take a walk around her Washington, DC, block. You’ll see that she’s on a first-name basis with everyone, from the doorman to the bus driver. But she is not nice.

For the past three years, I’ve had the privilege of waking up and imagining myself into Judy Heumann’s shoes. I co-authored her story, Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist, and as a nondisabled person, I’ve learned (and am still learning) an enormous amount about life with a disability. Equally important, despite having spent my entire career leading NGOs and working for social change, I’ve also learned an enormous amount from Judy about activism.

Judy Heumann became a quadriplegic from polio at the age of one and grew up in 1950s Brooklyn—an era known for locking disabled people in institutions, segregating them into inferior special education programs, and shunting them into sheltered workshops as a proxy for “employment.” People with disabilities, stigmatized and ignored, were considered a burden. In the face of this discrimination, Judy became an activist for disability rights. In 1977, she and others led 150 disabled people into the San Francisco Federal building and refused to leave until the Carter administration enacted the first civil rights legislation for disability. This protest, the Section 504 Sit-In, is recognized now as the longest takeover of a federal building in US history. It paved the way for the American Disabilities Act.

In other words, Judy is a badass.

Judy speaks the truth. Unapologetically. Now, in case you don’t know good-girl lexicon, speaking the truth unapologetically is not considered nice. Nice is what girls are asked to perform to be considered desirable. Nice girls are soft, compassionate and, above all, agreeable. Nice girls don’t complain, have needs, ask for what they want, say no, get angry, refuse to do something, or make a fuss. Nice girls apologize when they get the wrong drink order.

Nice, however, is not just about gender. It is about power. When interacting with people with less power, sociologists have noted, people with power expect the less powerful to display considerate, cooperative, and nice behavior. When they don’t, people with more power aren’t just surprised—they’re annoyed and, even more, threatened. Not acting nice toward people with power is an inherent challenge to their privileged status.

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