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

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Although she was a Brownie and went to Hebrew school, she couldn't understand why going to school with the other kids was off limits. "I was beginning to ask, 'Why am I not going to school? Why am I doing these other things?' " she says.

During that era, disabled children generally were excluded from much of school life. They would either be educated at home or sent to special institutions.

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.

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