> Hi. This is Vanessa Harris with Fun4theDisabled.com. Today, I’m having a conversation with Miss Judith Heumann —

> Hello.

>> — a human rights activist and a true icon. Hi, Judy.

>> Hi. So are you, icon to icon. How are you?

>> Okay. Judy is the author of ‘Being Heumann’. I’m gonna show the book. We both have copies. [Laughing] And one of the “she-roes” of the documentary, ‘Crip Camp’. Welcome to Fun4theDisabled, Judy.


2020 was a busy year for you. Your book, ‘Being Heumann’, was published. You were on the cover of Time Magazine. The documentary, ‘Crip Camp’, was released, and then a pandemic hit.

>> And I was on ‘Trevor Noah’.

>> Yeah? [Laughing] Yeah.

>> That was amazing.

>> This video is all about you. So let’s talk about you. Judy, you contracted polio when you were 18 months old, so you’ve been disabled almost your entire life.

>> That’s right.

>> You were homeschooled until the fourth grade.

>> The only reason I’d like to modify “homeschooled” is there are families who make a conscious decision to educate their children at home —

>> Okay.

>> — and they’re, today, called “homeschoolers”. My parents did not wish to educate me at home. It was because of the 1950s. When my mother took me to school, she was told I was a fire hazard and could not go to that school, but not to worry, because the Board of Ed would send a teacher to my house. This is in Brooklyn. And they did for two and a half hours a week for the first grade, second grade, third grade, and half of the fourth grade —

>> Okay.

>> — before I finally got into segregated classes. So, yeah.

>> Okay. In ‘Crip Camp’, you said, and I quote, “I felt like it was important to be inclusive because I didn’t really have any role models as I was growing up who had disabilities. It made people feel like they were more a part of what was happening.” Judy, how did it feel not to have any role models with disabilities when you were growing up? Did you instinctively band together with your fellow classmates and in the camp?

>> That’s a very interesting question, because until I was nine and started to go to the segregated classes, which I must say the value of the ones I got to meet are the disabled people, but from an educational perspective, it was not very rewarding.

>> Mm-hmm.

>> There were low expectations, and we weren’t learning to the same curricula. But what I did learn is that there were other disabled people, and that we had similar experiences and similar aspirations that were not being supported by others, and that we needed to come together and bond together to help us gain the confidence, the knowledge, and the support, as I was just saying, to be able to create our own dreams and to be able to realize them.

>> Okay. What do you see as disability culture, and how does it relate to other marginalized persons, especially the year we are experiencing right now?

>> I think, for me, disability culture evolves from being with other disabled individuals and being able to share our experiences as disabled individuals, helping each other to be able to become grounded, to be able to understand who we are, and to be able to dream the dreams that we have, and be able to live those dreams, make them become reality. And frequently, that needs to be done with the support of other disabled individuals.

And I think, when we are looking at disability culture, we’re also looking at the multifaceted level of players of who we are as disabled people. You’re a black disabled woman. I’m a white disabled woman. You have cultural issues that may be different than some of my cultural issues as a Jewish disabled woman.

Being able to talk about, also, how other cultures that we’re a part of may not accept us equally, and how that makes us feel, and what we need to be doing. Those are all things that I believe the disability movement, the culture in the disability movement is all about — the ability to express ourselves in programs like this, in poetry, in books, in film, in journalism. It’s really allowing others to learn who we are and for us to be able to feel free to express who we are.

>> Okay. Now, I think it’s not just disability culture. It’s a culture where everyone should be welcomed and included. What do you think?

>> I think disability culture is something which helps build our resolve —

>> Uh-huh.

>> — makes us stronger people, enables us to, in some way, go out into the big world which, in many cases, is not welcoming of who we are. Ultimately, I think what we’re trying to show is that, you know, we are like everybody else. We have the same desires as other people, and the barriers which are put up against us by other people need to be broken down —

>> Yeah.

>> — and that our ultimate objective is to be able to live in a community where all people are respected, regardless of their difference, and that we see the richness of who we are.

>> When you said, and I quote, “The most important thing for me has been the creation of the disabled rights movement that I feel we can call an international rights movement.” So where does intersectionality fit in? Do you think it’s a culture for everyone, like you said and not just those with disability, or am I putting words in your mouth? What shall we call this?


>> Well, we are calling it the international disability rights movement. It’s a disability rights movement that may vary somewhat from country to country or disability to disability. The cultures for deaf people, for blind people, basically disabled people, people with intellectual, mental health, et cetera, we may have different cultural aspects. And also, as we were discussing earlier, you know, the intersectionality of our disability, our race, our gender, our sexual orientation — all of those things are a composite of who we are. And so I think we’re needing to recognize that people need to bring the totality of their being forward, that if any aspect of a person, including someone who has a disability, if any of the important parts of ourselves are being denigrated, if we’re being made to feel that we can’t feel proud and speak up about who we are completely, that those are the changes that we’re needing to make.

If we don’t feel comfortable in our own skin, we’re not authentic. And if we’re not authentic, then we, in fact, cannot be true to ourselves.

>> Okay, okay. All right. Let’s skip forward to when you were 44 years old. What did you find the thing most challenging while working in the Clinton administration?

>> Well, I wouldn’t say it’s — you know, the Clinton administration, that one of the most challenging things I have found in working in the government, whatever, you know, level of government, getting non-disabled people, who are the vast majority of people working in these agencies, and in the private sector, and in non-profit organizations, to really understand who we are as disabled people and that we’re able — that A, our issues are important to be integrated into the policy work that’s being done, and B, that we have the same aspirations and competencies if we’re given the right education and experiences as non-disabled people. So we want equal opportunity.

We need to really look at our children really being placed in the least restrictive environment. Are they getting the supports they need in order to be able to be successful in school? When people are beginning to learn about jobs and getting training for jobs, are they being given opportunities to train in their field of interest so that they can then go out and get a job? Are people getting internships and mentorships in employment? Are we being able to live in the community and get the supports that we may need to be able to live independently? These are all critical things that I think we need to be addressing.

>> Okay. You just skipped to three or four of my next questions, so I’ll go to the next one. Now that we have Joe Biden as a President, do you think we’ll be able to regain the progress we lost in the last four years in terms of disability issues?

>> Yes. I mean, I think President Biden is looking at diversity, as we can see from the people that he has been nominating so far, and I’m fully confident that there will be disabled individuals who will be nominated for various positions across government and that we will continue to see an uptick of disabled people, not only in jobs in the federal government, in civil service, and political jobs, but the message of the President is a President of all people is really showing that disabled people are part of his “all”.

The fact that he came out as a stutterer, which is, I think, a very powerful statement on his part, that he had a young boy who was a stutterer also present at the Democratic National Convention, really normalizing stuttering, validating the fact that stutterers are equal people in society. I think that is very powerful and will lead to many more positive outcomes.

>> Yeah. I totally agree. When they announced that Biden was the President-elect, I was so happy, I started crying.

>> Yep.

>> Yeah.

>> I totally — my neighborhood totally erupted.

>> Yeah.

>> It was really exciting.

>> Yeah. What do you think of the Biden plan for full participation equality for people with disabilities? Pretty extensive. Have you had a chance to look at that?

>> Yes, I have.

>> Okay.

>> It’s just great. You know, it’s a very important document. It doesn’t address everything, but it addresses many, many things and really enables the disability community across the country and the country as a whole to understand that his vision is to enable the barriers to be removed so disabled people can participate.

>> Okay, great. Okay. Okay. Let’s get back to your book. On page 63, you talk about your attitude about all the things you were fighting for. You were fighting for your life and the lives of others in the disability community. Can you please read on page 63?

>> When I think back, I am in awe at how differently things could have gone if I had given into my fear and insecurity. What if I had just let the issue go because I didn’t want to make a fuss? To begin with, I never would have known whether I was able to teach. Even more important, I would have been accepting what the system was telling me about who I was and what I could do. Even if I’ve lost the court case, just bringing the case would still have changed my life because I stood up and told the system that it was wrong about me. I was fighting for what I believed in.

So let me explain to the reader. This paragraph relates to after I had made the decision to file a lawsuit against the Board of Education of the City of New York because I was denied the right to teach because I was unable to walk.

>> Yeah.

>> And I think it’s a very important paragraph because it really did take a lot of resilience on my part, honestly, to make the decision that I would, in fact, go forward with the lawsuit, because it put me right out there and having to answer questions. And I think one of the reasons why I eventually decided it was something I would move forward with was because my friends with disabilities, my family, we were really seeing this as an example of the kind of discrimination that people were facing, not the totality of discrimination that people were facing, and that the message here was if you believe you’ve been unjustly treated, you need to do what needs to happen in trying to correct the wrong.

>> Do you think that your entire life has been about the fight to win for disability rights?

>> I think, you know, I certainly, as I was growing up, did not plan when I was younger that so much of my life would be focused around disability rights, but I think, like thousands of other disabled people in the United States and around the world, we ultimately recognized that not only were we fighting for ourselves, but we were fighting with others.

And I think that’s, you know, very important. That, for me, is — can’t abandon where we are. We need to keep working on expanding the movement, getting more and more voices of disabled people from more diverse communities involved. At the same time that we need to maintain the groups of people that have been working, bring in new leadership, because younger people today, their experiences are different. They have so many different skills and experiences with discrimination, and working together, I think we really are making a difference.

You know, one of the issues in disability is, as you know, Vanessa, the intergenerational issues. We’re not just talking about people acquire their disabilities when they’re younger. Many of the people that we’re talking about acquire their disabilities at different points in their lives.

>> Yeah.

>> Many of those people are 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and we want those people to see themselves as a part of our movement because they are.

>> Okay. One quarter of the population, we are a force to be reckoned with. Able-ist society can’t stop us now.

>> I think it’s a very true statement that 61 million disabled people in the United States coming together from very diverse backgrounds can really make a difference. We are making a difference, and we need to recognize how vital it is for us to grow our movement, to learn about the diversity within our movement, and to be able to come forward speaking in unity.

Black Lives Matter is a critical part of the movement and ensuring that black and brown and other people with disabilities from diverse communities that we must make sure that our laws really are being effectively enacted and enforced so that the depth and breadth of contributions can be made.

>> Okay. I agree totally. Well, Judy, you never stop, and that’s why I enjoyed reading your book, and I enjoy talking to you.

>> That’s why I like talking with you, because you never stop either.

>> [Laughing] Thank you. Everyone should read ‘Being Heumann’ —

>> And see [INDISCERNIBLE – crosstalk]

>> — and watch the documentary, ‘Crip Camp’. They show the snapshots of disability rights activism history. Or should we call it “herstory”?

>> Well, you know, there are so many stories in there. I was just one of them. So many other powerful disabled people in ‘Crip Camp’. I think that’s one of the beauties of the film, that it really shows that activism is composed of the voices of many, and it’s the voices of many that really make change.

>> Yeah. Well, thank you very much, Judy, for an exciting, lively talk today.

>> Thanks so much, as always.

>> Yeah.

>> We’ll talk soon.

>> Okay.


>> I had fun —

>> Me too.

>> — and my viewers will enjoy watching this interview.

>> Thank you.

>> This is Vanessa Harris of Fun4theDisabled with Judith Heumann, disability rights icon. Talk to you guys later.

>> Bye. Thank you.

>> Bye. Okay. Bye-bye.

>> Bye.


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