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Judy Human, Disability Rights Activist, Dies at 75

Judy HumanA prominent activist who helped legislate to protect the rights of people with disabilities has died at the age of 75.

News of his death in Washington, D.C., was posted on his website and social media accounts on Saturday and confirmed to The Associated Press by his younger brother, Rick Human.

He said he was in the hospital for a week and had heart problems that may have resulted from something known as post-polio syndrome, a childhood infection so severe that he spent months in an iron lung and lost the ability to walk at age 2.

Obit Judy Human

“Mother of the Disability Rights Movement” Judy Human (December 18, 1947–March 4, 2023) lost her ability to walk at the age of 2 after contracting polio.

Susan Ragan/AP

He spent the rest of his life fighting, first for himself and then for others, to gain access, his brother recalled.

“It wasn’t about glory or anything like that for my sister. It was always about how she could make things better for other people,” he said, adding that the family was comforted by the tributes pouring in on Twitter from dignitaries like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and past Presidents.

President Joe Biden recalled working with Humane, whom he called a “trailblazer” in advocating for disability rights.

“Judy Humane was a trailblazer — a rolling warrior — for disability rights in America,” Mr. Biden said in a statement. “After her school principal told her she couldn’t enter kindergarten because she used a wheelchair, Judy devoted the rest of her life to fighting for the inherent dignity of people with disabilities.”

Human has been called the “mother of the disability rights movement” for her long advocacy for people with disabilities through protests and legal action, her website says.

He lobbied for legislation that eventually led to the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the Rehabilitation Act. He served as Assistant Secretary of the US Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services from 1993 to 2001 in the Clinton administration.

Mr. Biden called the pieces of legislation, “landmark achievements that increase access to education, jobs, housing and more for people with disabilities,” adding that Human “also served in leadership positions in two presidential administrations and he started multiple disability. advocacy organizations that continues to benefit people here and around the world.”

Human was also involved in the passage of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was ratified in May 2008.

Judy Human attends the Women’s Entrepreneurship Day Organization Summit 2022 at the United Nations on May 20, 2022 in New York City.

Getty Images

He helped found the Berkeley Center for Independent Living, the Independent Living Movement, and the World Institute on Disability, and serves on the boards of the American Association of People with Disabilities, the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, Humanity and Inclusion, and several related organizations. The United States is the International Council on Disability, says its website.

Human, who was born in Philadelphia in 1947 and raised in New York City, is the co-author of his memoir “Being Human” and a version for young adults titled “Rolling Warrior.”

In her book, her parents, German-Jewish immigrants who came out before the Holocaust, describe the struggle they experienced trying to secure a place at school for their daughter. “Children with disabilities were considered a hardship economically and socially,” he wrote.

Rick Human said his mother, whom he described as a “bulldog,” initially had to homeschool his sister. The experience of fleeing Nazi Germany left parents and their children with emotional scars.

“We truly believe,” he said, “that discrimination in any shape, form is wrong.”

Judy graduated from Human High School and earned a bachelor’s degree from Long Island University and a master’s degree in public health from the University of California, Berkeley. It was groundbreaking at the time, which shows how much has changed, said Maria Towne, president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities.

“The expectation for children with disabilities today is that we will be included in mainstream education, that we will have the opportunity to go to high school, to go to college and get those degrees,” Towne said, acknowledging that inequities persist. “But I think it’s a really big thing that the initial idea has changed, and I think Judy played an important role.”

He was also featured in the 2020 documentary film “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution”, which highlighted Camp Zend, a summer camp Humane attended that helped the disability rights movement. The film was nominated for an Academy Award.

In the 1970s he won a lawsuit against the New York Board of Education and became the first teacher in the state to be able to work while using a wheelchair, which the board tried to claim was a fire hazard.

He was also a leader in a historic, nonviolent occupation of a San Francisco federal building in 1977 that set the stage for the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which became law in 1990.

Towne, who has cerebral palsy, said Human suggested he should use a mobility scooter to help him get around. After a lifetime of being told he needed to look less disabled, he wasn’t ready to hear it at first. Eventually, though, he decided to give it a try.

“And it literally changed my life,” Towne said. “And that was part of what Judy did. She really helped people accept who they were as disabled people and take pride in that identity. And she helped a lot of people realize their own abilities as disabled people.”

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