Disability rights activist Judith “Judy” Heumann spoke in Sherman Function Hall on Thursday about what she has learned during her 40-year career in disability activism. The lecture and following discussion, “The Journey to Achieving Equality: Past, Present, and Future of Disability Activism,” was organized by the Lurie Institute for Disability Policy and by the Sillerman Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy. It was part of a series of Sankofa Community Conversations hosted by the Heller School for Social Policy and Management. 

The discussion was initially to be held in the Heller School, but high demand forced them to relocate, said Wendy Peverill-Conti, Senior Department Coordinator for the Lurie Institute, in an interview with the Justice. Event coordinators were only expecting 80 people to attend, then they changed the venue when more registered, Peverill-Conti said. 

Chief Diversity Officer and Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Mark Brimhall-Vargas introduced the event first. He said he was excited to welcome Heumann, “a true legend in the disability rights movement,” then turned the microphone over to Monika Mitra, the director of the Lurie Institute. 

Mitra began by summarizing Heumann’s career and achievements. Heumann led a protest of the delayed implementation of regulations in the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and she served as the assistant secretary of Education for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services under former President Bill Clinton from 1993 to the end of his administration in 2001. Then, from 2002 to 2006, she worked for the World Bank as its first advisor on Disability and Development. In 2010, she was appointed to the newly-created position of special advisor for International Disability Rights by former President Barack Obama.

Mitra reminded the audience of three “pioneers” of disability activism that worked at the Heller School: Gunnar and Rosemary Dybwad and Irving “Irv” Zola. Mitra invited Zola’s widow, Judy Norsigian, to introduce Heumann.

Norsigian said returning to Brandeis was “very emotional,” and that she appreciated “all the wonderful people” Zola brought into her life, including Heumann. When her husband returned from trips to California, he often told her “great stories about Judy Heumann,” she recounted, adding, “Finally I got to meet Judy Heumann, and I could understand why they were such good friends. They are star activists in the best sense of the word.”

Norsigian then gave the floor to Heumann, who discussed her life in activism and what she had learned in her career with Sandy Ho, a research associate at the Lurie Institute.

Heumann’s activism received national attention in 1977 when she organized a sit-in at the Federal Office Building in San Francisco to protest the delayed implementation of regulations stipulated in section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The act was one of the first pieces of legislation to protect the rights of Americans with disabilities. 

Section 504 says that people with disabilities shall not “be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

Although activists coordinated sit-ins across the country, only the San Francisco sit-in lasted longer than a few days, Heumann explained. It went for 28 days, supported by activists both with and without disabilities. The Black Panther party delivered hot meals for the demonstrators, and the mayor of San Francisco also helped by providing air mattresses and portable showers. This cooperation was present among California activist organizations long before the sit-in. Different activist coalitions communicated with each other so that they weren’t “going after each other’s money” in fundraising, she explained.

The sit-in received renewed attention following recent  coverage on a segment of the Comedy Central series “Drunk History,” which organizers screened at the event.

Heumann said Candace Cable, a gold medal Paralympian, told Comedy Central to do a segment on the sit-in. The episode got the most important details correct, but she noted that the “hearing” where she and other citizens with disabilities testified was held in San Francisco, not in Washington, D.C. Still, she said it was commendable that the show hired actors with disabilities and accurately depicted the involvement of citizens both with and without disabilities.

One of the most important things about the demonstration, Heumann said, was that the non-disabled community learned more about disability, race, gender and sexual orientation. 

Heumann and Ho also discussed the importance of expectations and definitions of disability. Ho said that there is a “stigma” surrounding disability that makes many people with disabilities uncomfortable identifying as disabled. Heumann added that many people “may not even realize they have a disability,” and that it’s important to remove that stigma. She also said that at many universities, “disability is not seen in the diversity column” of the admissions process. 

Heumann explained that, historically, efforts to improve the quality of life of people with disabilities have been “overshadowed” by efforts to look for cures. She said that disability policies must reflect that some disabilities are permanent and that some only develop later in life. She added that training programs for people with disabilities must be designed with future jobs and future technology in mind, not current jobs and technologies “that might not exist ” in a few years due to new technologies like artificial intelligence or robotics.

The discussion concluded with a short Q&A segment. Susan Bueti Hill, who works for New England Regional Ski for Light, asked for advice about finding work with no college degree and a disability. Heumann said it’s important to remember that when applying for jobs, applicants can choose not to identify themselves as having a disability. 

Another audience member offered advice, too. Laura Rauscher, the director of Disability Services at Smith College, said it’s important to find a “mentor” — someone who can help navigate the disability community and network.

Emily Dana ’19 asked Heumann for advice for those starting in activism, to which Heumann replied, “Well, organizing is really important. Organizing is very important. And organizing is very important.” Heumann said it’s important to listen to people’s stories with an open mind, because “whatever people are feeling, it’s real to them.”

Cindy Wentz ’74, who worked at the Boston Center for Independent Living, asked if Heumann thought the disability community would be able to maintain the strength it has possessed throughout the last decades of the 20th century. Heumann said she believed it would become even more robust as the population of Americans with disabilities grows, but said that it can only remain strong if people are willing to get involved in activism.

Mitra concluded the event by presenting Heumann with a plaque “for her journey toward achieving equality, past, present and future disability activism, and the gratitude for [her] leadership and activism.”