It is often said that true leaders don’t build followers, they build more leaders. If this is true—and I believe strongly that it is—there is no greater example of a leader than Judith (Judy) Heumann, who passed away on March 4, 2023 at the age of 75.
Judy’s impact was profound. Her name is intertwined with the disability rights movement, and her activism embedded in nearly every policy advancement for people with disabilities in America. These include, of course, efforts to build a more equitable and inclusive workforce—the goal at the forefront of our work at the department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP).
If you’ve seen the 2020 award-winning documentary Crip Camp, you know that Judy’s activism started young. As a camper and later counselor at a summer camp in New York for teens with disabilities, she developed and honed her leadership skills and instilled them in others, several of whom would later join her in leading the fight for equal access and opportunity.
As just one of so many examples, Judy helped lead the historic 1977 “504 sit-in” at the San Francisco Federal Building. This demonstration resulted in the long-awaited signing of regulations implementing Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973—the 50th anniversary of which we are recognizing this year.
Section 504 prohibits discrimination based on disability in any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance, such as education or employment services, and its implementation was a milestone step in advancing civil rights for people with disabilities. It was the first federal legislation to address the notion of equity for people with disabilities, and it laid the foundation for the more comprehensive Americans with Disabilities Act to come. And Judy was at the heart of it all.
Much will be written and spoken about Judy in the coming days, weeks and years, and undoubtedly all of it will honor her remarkable impact. But in the end, there simply may not be enough words to adequately capture her spirit, love of family and passion for connecting others. She made the world a better place. She was a guiding light to many, me included. I was proud to call her a mentor and friend, and I benefitted greatly from her warmth, wit and wisdom.
I know that I speak for many in the disability community when I say we were not ready for Judy to leave us, and we join her family, including her husband Jorge Pineda, brothers, sisters-in-law and niece and nephew and others, in mourning her loss. But it is because of her extraordinary leadership that we are prepared—and committed—to taking on the torch she lit and carried for so long. Her light shines on, in all of us. That’s the legacy of true leadership, and hers will endure, always.
Taryn M. Williams is the assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy.