Judith Heumann speaks on the future of the disability rights movement

A Fireside Zoom Chat with an International Disability Rights Advocate


Photo taken during the webinar. Roberts is top left, Xia is top right, and Heumann is center.

Annalisa Waddick

Disability reforms at universities must go beyond meeting simple standards of accessibility said disability rights activist Judith Heumann. 

“We need to look at the areas of study at the universities,” Heumann said. “We need to see how the universities are relating to diversity overall and how it is impacting their recruitment, their curricula, and whether or not it’s comparable to what they’re doing in the area of disability.”

Heumann is an internationally recognized disability rights activist who contributed to the Section 504 sit-in –the longest sit-in at a federal building to date. This sit-in helped enact Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act which was the first disability civil rights law in the US to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities in programs that receive federal money. 

Heumann said Camp Jened, a camp created for young people with disabilities that was highlighted in the documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution, created a place for teens with disabilities to discuss their futures

She said her experiences at Camp Jened revealed to her the wider goals of those with disabilities.

“What we are wanting is to be accepted and respected for who we are, that laws prohibiting discrimination are enforced,” Heumann said. “We want to be able to ensure that people – regardless of their disability or race or sexual orientation or religion, on and on – are not discriminated against.” 

Heumann said to begin making changes for people with disabilities institutions like Washington and Lee University should place a “disability lens” on all the work and learning going on in the school. 

“It’s the leadership that really needs to come forward,” Heumann said. “Acknowledging in their plans what they are going to do to continue to allow the university not just to meet the standard of the law, but to go beyond the standard of the law.”

Catherine Xia, ‘23 a moderator for the fireside chat who is hard-of-hearing, said she had not looked at the problem this way. But she said Heumann’s words resonated with her.

“It’s always bothered me a little [that] when people talk about diversity at W&L, they never mention disability,” Xia said. “So I really appreciated it when Heumann spoke about incorporating a disability lens into the classroom.” 

Heumann said stigma was preventing society from achieving greater changes for disabled people.

“I believe that one of the big barriers that we have to advancing the rights of disabled people is the shame that people feel around disability,” Heumann said. “I’m not saying that all people feel shame, but shame is something that many people have been raised in… we don’t look at disability and disabled people as something which is unique and beautiful.” 

Dani Roberts, the assistant director of inclusion and engagement, said he could relate to this sentiment.

“Growing up with a learning disability myself – I have dyslexia – I often felt ashamed and stuck, because I always thought I was the problem,” Roberts said in an email. “But after hearing Judy’s story in Crip Camp and from her book, I realized it was everyone else who suggested I had the problem that were the real problems.”

While some things have changed for people with disabilities in the past 70 years, Heumann said the rate of change is problematic. 

“We have not made the changes that we need to make,” Heumann said. “Things are still too slow. Institutions are not making the changes they need to make.”

And Heumann’s fireside chat did not mark the end of the conversation surrounding disabilities. The Office of Inclusion and Engagement has plans to develop other events/programs related to disability awareness in the future. 

“Judy Heumann’s virtual visit was not a one-time event, but an event to act as a catalyst for continued conversations and programs,” Roberts said. 

And Xia said as a leader of WLUnite, a club focused on educating, advocating, and raising awareness about disabilities and accessibility on campus, she hopes to develop more programming to continue the conversation.

“I would love to see more collaboration among other organizations and even other academic departments in creating an event that looks at things with a disability lens,” Xia said. “In general, since it’s a new club, I’m looking forward to creating more programming that starts a conversation around disability and I’m completely open to any collaborations.” 

Heumann spoke at the ‘The Disability Rights Movement: Past, Present, & Future’ Zoom webinar on March 9 which was co-sponsored by W&L’s Office of Inclusion and Engagement, Hillel, Student Activities, The W&L Law School, and WLUnite.

The event was designed to be as accessible as possible for attendees, and instant closed captioning was available. Heumann also verbally described herself, the moderators, and her surroundings for attendees who might have vision impairments.