Being Heumann

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11 April 2020

Judith Heumann is somebody I'd never heard of before I saw her on Trevor Noah's late night show, but I was immediately inspired. Her autobiography, Being Heumann, did not disappoint. Being one of the "weird kids" growing up I often got grouped together with the disabled kids, so to me they were always just other kids. Everybody has things they struggle with. Heumann is from my parents generation however, when people like her in wheelchairs weren't allowed to go to school. They said she was a fire hazard, which is a crazy reason not to teach a kid. I have a hard time believing people were so callous once, but fortunately we had people like Heumann to break down those barriers.

A good deal of the book focuses on her role during the occupation of a San Francisco federal building during the Carter administration. Reading it I couldn't help thinking back to my first Hack for Change in Chattanooga in 2014. I joined a group building an informational website for handicapped people looking at colleges - what facilities they had, what buildings were accessible, etc. Heumann and others occupied that federal building because the government was trying to establish "separate but equal" colleges for the disabled (among other issues). Amazing how these issues resonate through history. At Hackanooga the idea for our project came from a wheelchair bound woman who had recently experienced the lack of information in her own college search. She was dedicated to the project. When I said I was going to spend the night there to maximize my work hours in the hackathon, she decided to stay with me. While I stretched out on a couch she slept there with me in her motorized chair. In the end we finished the website and handed it off to her to populate the database with information.

Judith Heumann went on from activist to become a bureaucrat in government, and unfortunately her book only touches briefly on this part of her story. Mostly it's about who she hired - disabled people to work in the department affecting their lives. One comes away with the impression that she values her experience as a fighter more than as a builder. But autobiographies often have such vagaries. Hers is still an incredibly inspiring one.

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This file last modified 25 April 2020 by Bradley James Wogsland.

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