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Judith Heumann: from 'fire hazard' to top advocate for disabled people

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After years of effort by her parents she finally started public school in Grade 4 at age 9. When she was ready for high school, Heumann's mother joined with other mothers to persuade the school board to make the high school more accessible. Heumann was able to attend.

She went on to study speech and theater at Long Island University and set her heart on becoming a teacher.

But when she applied to the New York City Board of Education, she was rejected on the basis that, because she was in a wheelchair, she could be a fire hazard.

In what became a landmark ruling, she sued the school board and won – becoming the first person in a wheelchair to teach in New York City.

While in college in the late 1960s, Heumann had joined in civil rights and antiwar protests, but she also organized disability rights rallies and protests.

"We were looking to change society, flip it over," Heumann says.

In 1970, Heumann and some friends founded Disability in Action, a group aimed at addressing barriers to employment, housing, and education. She brought her can-do attitude to Berkeley, Calif., and cofounded the country's first Center for Independent Living (CIL).

"She was absolutely sure that she should have the right to live like everybody else," says Joan Leon, a fellow disability rights activist. "She was instrumental in building CIL. She gave it legs."

Today, the Berkeley CIL serves as a model for other independent living centers in more than 60 countries.

In 1977, Heumann helped organize a sit-in at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare office in San Francisco. That protest, along with others nationwide, resulted in the implementation of Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, which made it illegal for federally funded programs to discriminate against disabled people.

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