From “Fire Hazard” to “Keeper of the Flame”: Remembering Judy Heumann

March 4, 2024
A photograph of Judith Heumann. She is sitting in her power chair behind table covered with a white table cloth. There is a microphone and a name placard in the foreground. She is wearing a colorful blouse and a maroon cardigan that matches the color of her glasses rims.
Photo of Judith Heumann by Taylor DW, licensed under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0

Today, March 4, we honor the life and legacy of Judith “Judy” Heumann. Judy is widely known as “Mother of the Disability Rights Movement” in the United States and globally.

When Heumann was 5 years old, school officials denied her the right to attend public school, claiming that her wheelchair was a “fire hazard.” Years later, the same school district denied her a teaching license. Heumann sued the school board and became the first wheelchair user to teach in New York. She went on to become an international advocate, spurring the creation of critical disability rights legislation like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Once, when a younger person with a disability asked how she stayed motivated to keep up the fight, Heumann replied, “I still encounter barriers every single day…but at this point, I am just the keeper of the flame. My true passion is to hand it over to youth with disabilities to keep breaking down the barriers.”

Judy passed away one year ago today. But her flame still shines brightly, tended by the many people for whom she paved the way.

Eurasia Foundation has the privilege of working with many of these torchbearers. We partner with social entrepreneurs, educators, and experts with disabilities to champion their ideas for change. We advance disability-inclusive climate action by centering advocates with disabilities in conversations around climate change adaptation and disaster preparedness. And through our Judy Initiative, we equip youth with disabilities to keep breaking down barriers. The initiative unites a new generation of young changemakers with disabilities who will keep Heumann’s message alive and make their own unique mark on the future.

Today, March fourth, we answer the call to “March Forth” in Judy’s memory—to keep pushing for a society that includes, respects, and cherishes everyone. We hope you join us in this mission.