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  • Writer's pictureMeg O'Connell

Fangirling With Disability Inclusion Leader, Judy Heumann!

Updated: Mar 5, 2023

A few months ago, I watched an episode of Drunk History. If you haven’t watched Drunk History, you’re really missing out. It is a great way to get basics on a history-making event, while your “historians” have a cocktail or two, or even five. It leads to some funny rhetoric on significant historic issues.

The episode I watched featured disability rights activist and leader Judy Heumann, and one of the first major fights for disability inclusion. In 2019, access to transportation is a requirement. But in the early 70’s, there was no access to public places or transportation, and all of that was about to change with a movement led by Judy that has forever improved access for people with disabilities.

Scene from Drunk History on Comedy Central

Since watching the episode, I wanted to spend some time with Judy and get her perspective on her involvement as an activist and leader, and what she sees is ahead for disability inclusion. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to spend over an hour with Judy – below are just a few highlights.

Meg: Ok, since Drunk History brought us here, let’s start there. The episode of Drunk History was brilliant! I think it is the most fun eight minutes about the disability civil rights movement anyone can see. What is your most significant memory of that movement?

Judy Heumann: It was the 70’s, transit systems didn’t want to build buses or trains that were accessible. We lived in the same place for 24/25 days and we got to have discussions that we never had the chance to before. We saw the value of coming together, working together, and learning about each other and our needs. The empowerment people felt, personally affected them, and helped affect change. It was a very important, mind-altering event.

It was a unique time and the goal was to end discrimination against disabled persons. Section 504 was a launching pad for disabled persons to speak up for themselves, to stand up for themselves and end discrimination.

Meg: There is no doubt you’ve seen a lot of changes over the years. But it seems the last five years have brought disability inclusion to a whole new level, what do you attribute to this change?

Judy Heumann: Regulations were implemented after 504 that continued to increase access. Inclusion has been growing incrementally for decades. Section 503 (the latest set of regulations implemented in 2014) added a very important component that focused on employment. Federal Contractors must focus on employment, across all jobs. And this has been significant. Employers are seeing the benefits of inclusion, not just with diversity but with disability. Disabled persons are now being included as part of the diversity movement. We are beginning to see more opportunities.

Meg: So, let’s talk about employment. I understand you experienced employment discrimination firsthand when applying for a teaching position out of college. What advice would you give companies/employers today to encourage inclusion? And what advice would you give students, recent grads?

Judy Heumann: We need to make sure companies see the value and the benefit of hiring disabled persons. Companies need to dig deep and evaluate what resources they have in place for disabled persons…how to interview differently, how to encourage involvement, how to shift to a culture of inclusion (e.g., affinity groups). Companies need to share what they are doing and set an example for others. Tell everybody your success stories.

And for students: It is important to have mentors, internships while in school, maybe work with alumni to get experience. Internships provide an understanding of what is happening in business, how to problem solve. It also provides a feeling of self-assurance and helps them to self-advocate for what they need. And most importantly, DON’T be ashamed of who you are.

Meg: We are a little over a year from the 30th anniversary of the ADA. What do you think is the most important thing that needs to happen in the next 5-10 years?

Judy Heumann: 1 in 4 people has a disability, and we don’t care enough about that. We need to keep the momentum moving. The absence of disability is bad for society. We need to look at disability as a natural part of life and build and plan around it. We need to continue to come together and have a voice for better inclusion. Companies need to continue to expand diversity efforts to include us. We also need to think about globalization, what are the jobs in the future and how are we planning to include disabled persons. We need to be part of the pack and part of the plans to address the jobs for the future.

Meg: Ok, last question. If you could interview anyone for Drunk History, who would it be?

Judy Heumann: Laughing. This is my favorite question. But I would like the question to be different. I think it should be, “what are the stories that need to be told?” There are many amazing leaders who have helped shape the disability movement and people need to know those stories. I would like to see a story series. People like I King Jordan and Alice Wong – these are stories people need to know about.

I think you will agree, Judy is pretty remarkable, and at 71 she shows no signs of slowing down. Update - Judy passed away March 4, 2023. May you rest in peace and power. We will continue your work.

Here is the link to the episode of Drunk History featuring Judy and Section 504.

Each episode of Drunk History is less than 10 minutes, so pour yourself a Bourbon and let the binge-watching begin!

Judy Heumann


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