2023 National Disability Employment Awareness Month
By Tisha Lighty-Cain (SEPM for National Disability Employment Awareness Month)
Every October, National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) is celebrated by honoring the past and present contributions of individuals with disabilities as well as inclusive laws, policies, and practices that preserve the rights of those with disabilities. This year is the 50th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which specifically prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs conducted by federal agencies, in programs receiving federal financial assistance, in federal employment and in the employment practices of federal contractors.
This year’s NDEAM theme, “Advancing Access and Equity,” is intended to celebrate the passage of the Rehabilitation Act a half-century ago. The theme highlights the advancements in legislation and the rights of individuals with disabilities who ultimately made significant contributions to work, culture and society overall. One person who was instrumental in helping the Rehabilitation Act pass and become law was Judith Heumann.
Now affectionally known as “the mother” of the Disability Rights Movement, Judith Heumann worked her whole life advocating for the rights of individuals with disabilities through protests, sit-ins, books, letters, speeches, and interviews. She worked for many organizations in different capacities in her fight against discrimination. Heumann received many awards and recognition for her disability advocacy endeavors; she also worked with the Clinton and Obama administrations on disability-related issues as the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services and Special Advisor on International Disability Rights for the U.S. State Department, respectively.
Heumann’s activism was heavily influenced by her experience as a person with a disability. At the age of two, she contracted polio and began using a wheelchair for mobility. Her parents fought against many injustices, including inequities in public education. As a result of her parents’ persistence, Heumann finished grade school and later attended college. During her college years, Heumann advocated for the rights of people with disabilities and demanded wheelchair accessibility for dorm rooms and other areas on campus. In 1970, Heumann sued the Board of Education after being denied a New York teaching license due to her disability. She settled her case and became the first wheelchair-using teacher in New York City. While the Rehabilitation Act was still being considered and debated, Heumann and some of her friends started Disabled in Action, an advocacy group that organized efforts in New York and Washington, D.C., which ultimately helped get the Act passed and signed into law.
One of Heumann’s many notable quotes is: “Disability only becomes a tragedy for me when society fails to provide the things we need to lead our lives––job opportunities or barrier-free buildings, for example. It is not a tragedy to me that I'm living in a wheelchair.” (Shapiro, 1994). On March 4, 2023, Heumann passed away at the age of 75; five months before the 50th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Her legacy and contributions to law and the oppressed continue to live on. More information about Heumann can be found in the award-winning Netflix documentary “Crip Camp.”