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CAST Pays Tribute to Judith Heumann, 1947–2023

Photo of Judith Heumann smiling

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Robert F. Kennedy famously said that some people “see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.”

Judith Heumann, who died on March 4, was just that kind of person, a dreamer and, more importantly, a doer. She became an international icon for her work to secure civil and human rights for people with disabilities.

Often called the “Mother” of the disability-rights movement, Judy inspired so many around the globe to work for greater accessibility and opportunities for all. Among those she inspired: the founders, board, and staff of CAST.

“We have lost a fierce advocate whose life made a difference for so many,” says Lindsay Jones, CAST’s chief executive officer. “We were lucky to learn from her, work with her, have her lead and inspire all of us. So much of what CAST has done in promoting accessibility and developing the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework follows from the trailblazing efforts of Judy to insist that everyone have a place at the table.”

Those of us who have disabilities owe so much to Judy Heumann and her fierce and tireless advocacy for civil rights and inclusion in education and employment,” says Luis F. Pérez, technical assistance specialist at CAST. “Many of the opportunities we sometimes take for granted today are only available to us because pioneers like Judy spoke up in the face of injustice and didn’t take no for an answer. The best way to honor Judy’s legacy is to take the baton from her and continue to speak up when we encounter barriers that will keep future generations from enjoying the same opportunities Judy has created for us.”

Born in 1947 to refugees from Nazi Germany, Judy Heumann faced – and faced down – discrimination throughout her remarkable life. CAST Co-Founder and Board Member David Rose recounts: “Judy famously told of her experience as a young girl trying to go to her local school, a multi-floor building with no elevators or ramps.  She was initially blocked from doing so, on the grounds that she would be a ‘fire hazard’ in her wheelchair — making it difficult for other children to escape or for firemen to do their work.  I will always remember Judy as the best ‘fire hazard’ I ever met, and the one that taught me the most.”

Fresh out of college, she had to sue the New York CIty Board of Education in the 1970 to be allowed to become a school teacher. She won and became the city’s first teacher to use a wheel chair on the job. “We're not going to let a hypocritical society give us a token education and then bury us," she told a reporter at the time.

Later that decade, she led protests to force state and federal agencies to anti-discrimination laws, sparking a movement that led to eventual passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 and fueled efforts to include students with disabilities more fully in classrooms.

CAST mourns the loss of Judith Heumann and salutes the profound impact she had on millions of people with and without disabilities in schools and other institutions.

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