Everyone knows the name Martin Luther King Jr. for leading the Civil Rights Movement, just as everyone knows the name Harvey Milk as a tragic martyr for LGBTQI+ rights.
Now, it’s time everyone learns the name Judith Heumann as a pivotal figure in the decades-long Disability Rights Movement reshaping America since the 1970s.
“When Rosa Parks was denied her right to sit on a bus, there was the Montgomery boycott,” Heumann told WTOP. “In the case of disabled people, just saying that you could go on a bus didn’t mean anything because you couldn’t get on the bus. … This film results in people no longer being able to say, ‘How come I didn’t know this story?'”
The journey is chronicled in Netflix’s Oscar-nominated documentary “Crip Camp,” which may have lost at Sunday night’s ceremony, but allowed Heumann to fly from her D.C. home to Los Angeles to spread her message of inclusion on national television.
“It was phenomenal to be nominated and on the red carpet,” Heumann said. “Marlee Matlin, who’s also a friend, was the person emceeing that section.” She noted that she got to introduce herself to Youn Yuh-jung, who won Best Supporting Actress for “Minari.”
“Crip Camp” began over lunch between Emmy-winning filmmaker Nicole Newnham (PBS’ “Independent Lens”) and her longtime sound designer Jim LeBrecht, who was born with spina bifida. He pitched a documentary about Camp Jened, which he attended at age 15.
The doc opens in 1971, as teenagers with disabilities, including Heumann, visit Camp Jened in the Catskills of upstate New York. Not long after the hippie communes of the late ’60s, the free-spirited camp gives the teens social activities such as sports, singing, friendship, and even dating, that they’ve been missing on the outside.
“There were no laws at the time regarding accessibility,” Heumann said. “My brothers both went to camps for a number of summers, but I couldn’t go to the camp they went to because their camp was not accessible. … Jened was a wonderful place. It was an opportunity for those of us with disabilities to really be together and not feel awkward.”
After camp, Heumann became an activist for disability rights in her native Brooklyn.
“I had filed a lawsuit against the Board of Education because I was denied my teaching license because of paralysis of both lower extremities,” Heumann said. “I was given my license and we started this organization, Disabled in Action.”
Sparking their fight were the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
“When I was 5, the principal said I was a fire hazard,” Heumann said. “Section 504 made it a requirement that entities getting money from the federal government would have to address the issue of accessibility in major construction and renovations. … If a school had a class on the third floor but there was no elevator, what was the obligation of the school?”
When President Richard Nixon vetoed the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Heumann helped organize highly publicized demonstrations on Madison Avenue in New York City.
President Gerald Ford refused to sign the regulations, Heumann said, but when President Jimmy Carter took office, his administration “was seriously looking at making changes. That’s when the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities sprung into action.”
She moved west to San Francisco to get her masters at the University of California-Berkeley, where she also joined the board at the Center for Independent Living.
“It was a merging of East Coast and West Coast,” Heumann said. “There had been a lawsuit against the company building the train system, the BART. The [plaintiffs] won, so the BART was being constructed accessibly. … CIL was really moving forward as a progressive organization doing policy, services and helping people find places to live.”
The film includes a powerful scene in which Heumann testifies in San Francisco.
“About 150 disabled people and allies went into the federal building,” Heumann said. “When I was testifying, this gentleman was [nodding] his head. … I unleashed how we were feeling. He continued to [nod], so I said, ‘Can you please stop shaking your head in agreement when you don’t know what I’m talking about!’ The room erupted in applause.”
Finally, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
“It was a monumental moment,” Heumann said. “It was a huge lift to organize a new piece of legislation, which was fairly comprehensive addressing the public and private sector. Many people talk about it as the Emancipation Proclamation for disabled individuals.”
After the ADA passed, Heumann stayed in D.C. to work in the Clinton Administration through the 1990s. She still lives here today, continuing the fight for disability rights.
“The disability movement around the world is getting stronger, larger, more cross-disability and more representation [across demographics],” Heumann said. “We have so much more work to do: unemployment rates, people in restricted living environments, and what’s going on in prisons where a disproportionate number of individuals have hidden disabilities.”
That includes tackling hypocrisy in Hollywood itself.
“There was a ramp that was integrated into the steps, so had ‘Crip Camp’ won [we] would have all gone up the ramp,” Heumann said. “The Academy has likely been in violation of the law in all the years they didn’t have a ramp to the stage. I’m very happy that they did it, but I also really want to underscore that it was a legal requirement for them to do it.”
Listen to our full conversation here.
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