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Honoring 'the Mother' of the Disability Rights Movement

March 21, 2023
Judy Heumann
Judith “Judy” Heumann, was known as “the mother” of the disability rights movement.

Northwestern University's Jen Cowhy, a doctoral student in the Human Development and Social Policy program at the School of Education and Social Policy, helped coauthor a joint statement recognizing the work and legacy of the late Judy Heumann  (left) for the American Educational Research Association.

Cowhy is a member of AERA's Special and Inclusive Education Research Special Interest Group and the Disability Studies in Education Special Interest Group. Her research focuses on special education policy; she's currently focusing on parents' work implementing special education and the ways school district leaders support students with disabilities.

Heumann was widely regarded as “the mother” of the disability rights movement. Her advocacy and protests, including her participation and leadership in the 26-day takeover of a federal building in San Francisco, helped secure the eventual enforcement of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act under the Carter administration in 1977.

Section 504 protects the civil rights of people with disabilities by requiring that entities receiving federal funds not discriminate on the basis of disability in employment, education, or participation.  

In her memoir and throughout her life, Judy pushed back on the ableist notion that her disability or wheelchair use was anything she should feel shame about, saying, “Disability only becomes a tragedy when society fails to provide the things we need to lead our lives.”

Read the full statement.