Strides have been made since the 1970s to ensure disabled people have equal rights, but more work still needs to be done to change attitudes toward individuals with disabilities.
That was the message of a webinar, hosted by Ripon College’s Center for Politics and the People, featuring internationally recognized disability advocate Judith Heumann.
The Nov. 10 discussion, titled “Judy Heumann: Our Fight for Disability Rights,” was moderated by Ripon College political science professor Henrik Schatzinger and religion professor emeritus Brian Smith.
Heumann was born in 1947 and had polio in 1949. Growing up, she said there were no laws addressing issues of discrimination and accessibility until the 1970s, when federal provisions passed.
In the 1940s, she noted the development of penicillin saved many who previously would have died from a spinal cord injury.
“You saw groups like the Paralyzed Veterans of America and their affiliates around the country that were beginning to do work in New York City and other major cities and states addressing issues like transportation, ramps, buildings, bathrooms, etc.,” Heumann said.
She noted the disability rights movement of the 1960s and ’70s was heavily influenced by the civil rights movement, which shined a light on the forms of discrimination African Americans faced.
“It was really the ’60s through some of the disabled students’ offices and other groups where young people were learning about the civil rights movement, learning of the anti-war movement and the women’s movement about what organizing was, how to do it and why it was important,” Heumann said.
She noted the push for disability rights took a step forward with the passage of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which is one of the first federal civil rights laws offering protection for people with disabilities.
Because of Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), public transit, such as buses and trains, are now required to be accessible to all, Heumann said.
Additionally, Section 504 and the ADA made it illegal to have separate amenities for non-disabled and disabled children such as summer camps.
In the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, Heumann said it was normal to have seperate summer camps for non-disabled children and disabled children.
“We were looking at what our non-disabled peers, including our brothers and sisters, were talking about: Going to college, what they were going to study,” she said. “But we didn’t have the same discussions going on.”
Although her peer group wasn’t having those conversations, Heumann still found a way to go to college. However, she was denied a teaching license because she couldn’t walk.
“When I was denied the license, I had to make a decision: Was I just going to do nothing? Or was I going to try to get my license?” Heumann recalled.
She eventually received her teaching license thanks, in part, to media coverage about why she had been denied.
While things have improved in some places, she added that work still needs to be done.
“You can’t legislate against attitudes,” she said. “It’s my belief that one of the reasons why people discriminate is because they’ve not been exposed, so they’ve learned myths and lies about people with disabilities.”
She said the disability-rights community continues to organize and has become a “more diverse group of disabled people” that’s been growing over the years.
“The work of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the advancement of disabled people from various racial backgrounds over the last 10 or 15 years has also been critically important,” Heumann said. “The voices are a combination of an ever-growing number of disabled people.”
She noted environmental factors, such as COVID-19 and mental-health conditions, have contributed to an increase in disabled people.
As a result, more people are viewing themselves as disabled and becoming organized to support their civil rights.
“Our movement really is beginning to allow people who’ve previously been afraid of identifying such as people with invisible disabilities like depression, anxiety, bipolar, lupus, diabetes or cancer, to identify,” Heumann said. “There’s so many different types of disabilities that people can not necessarily see: Intellectual and developmental disabilities.”
The more people are exposed to individuals with disabilities, the more likely they are to be understanding, Heumann added.
“One of the strengths of our country is our diversity, and in order to make it meaningful, we have to really approach our biases and learn about not only what the cause of those biases are, but what the remedies are,” she said. “In the case of disability, not all, but many of the remedies have been opening up society so we can come in. That may be various forms of accommodations, [but] … it’s allowing ourselves to view our community in a way that we hadn’t thought about before.”