Judy Heumann, who passed away this weekend, taught me—and the world—a 75-year lesson in the power of humanity and dignity. She taught us how to live and lead with it, how to fight for it, how to embody and represent it fully and completely.
udy’s time with us was defined by joy, purpose, and consequence—not despite the fact that she had a disability but because, as she famously declared, “I never wished I didn’t.” She was unafraid, unbowed, and unapologetic. She demanded respect for the rights of her community and marshaled a movement to secure them.
When I first met Judy, I had much to learn, far more than I knew. She was among the courageous advocates who, in 2014, rightly called me out for the Ford Foundation’s omission of people with disabilities from our strategy to address inequalities of all kinds—an unintended, but damning, embarrassing reification of the very inequalities we aspired to disrupt and dismantle.
The way Judy engaged then was both remarkable and remarkably characteristic. I remember her justifiable frustration, vividly, but also her grace and her kindness. Indeed, she was far more generous than I had any right to expect, ultimately agreeing to give her time, testimony, and tenacity as a Ford Foundation Senior Fellow, and bringing insight and nuance to our institution’s approach to one of the most significant (and ongoing) civil rights and human rights issues of our time.
Judy was at once relentless and compassionate, full of urgency and full of patience—a transcendent figure. She was somehow capable of recognizing the best, even in those of us unaware of our ignorance, focused always on our potential for transformation.
She informed my understanding of the challenges facing people with disabilities, and she invited others along on the journey as well. She helped to establish the Presidents’ Council on Disability Inclusion in Philanthropy and inspired the entire social justice sector to reimagine how to collaborate with the disability rights community. At Ford, she introduced us to the brilliant, late Marca Bristo, who we elected to our Board of Trustees. And she helped build a professional home for visionary colleagues like Rebecca Cokley and Catherine Hyde Townsend.
This is how Judy changed the world: Person by person, from the corridors of New York City’s public schools to the streets of Berkeley to the halls of power around the globe.
She displayed her superpowers from youth, even before she confronted government officials on a makeshift congressional panel organized in response to the occupation that she and other activists staged in a San Francisco federal building. I will forever hear her voice in that 1977 hearing, shaking with emotion, reverberating in its clarion conviction: “We will no longer allow the government to oppress disabled individuals.” A promise and a prophecy—one she helped fulfill through a lifetime of service and the sacrifice it required.
From Judy’s work in President Clinton’s and President Obama’s administrations to her position with the World Bank and beyond, Judy championed the rights of people with disabilities. Her ideas, her initiative, and her persistent insistence have lifted lives on every continent, in every country, and in every community on this planet.
In 2020, Judy’s groundbreaking activism reached a new generation through the Oscar-nominated documentary Crip Camp, which we were proud to support. The story captured the essential Judy—her fundamental decency, her unrelenting character, and her enduring spirit.
For every one of us, life is terribly fleeting. We each have precious little time on this Earth; incalculably much time to be gone from it. This recognition should embolden and ennoble our efforts, as it did for Judy and her beloved Jorge. And when we go, as each of us will, we can only hope to leave a legacy as profound as hers. She was a dear friend and revered hero—an extraordinary teacher who became a mentor and partner.
Judy’s life was a blessing to countless millions. May her memory be, too.
This piece was originally posted on the Ford Foundation website.
In this episode of the LandUP! podcast, we wanted to better understand a largely unexplored subject matter: the land rights of persons with disabilities. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities defines Persons with Disabilities as including those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.