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Remembering disability rights activist Judith Heumann

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Let's take a moment now to remember a champion for disability rights. Judith Heumann died over the weekend at the age of 75. She fought to become the first wheelchair user to teach in New York City public schools. In 1977, she helped lead a protest for legislation that would lay the groundwork for the Americans with Disabilities Act. And she served in the Clinton and Obama administrations advocating for disabled people in the U.S. and around the world. Before all that, she was a camper and counselor at Camp Jened, a summer camp for disabled people.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CRIP CAMP")

JUDITH HEUMANN: For me, the camp experience really was empowering because we have to empower each other, that the status quo is not what it needed to be.

SHAPIRO: Jim Lebrecht co-directed the documentary "Crip Camp" about Camp Jened, and he worked alongside Judith Heumann as a disability activist. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JIM LEBRECHT: Well, thank you for having me here.

SHAPIRO: How did her time at Camp Jened influence Judith Heumann's life?

LEBRECHT: It was a summer camp run by hippies. What could possibly go wrong?

(LAUGHTER)

LEBRECHT: It was that kind of freewheeling spirit of the times that we experienced at that camp. You're being told that you are not your disability; you are your person. And I know that that had to have had a big influence on Judy, but she was already kind of there, I think, you know, in the fights that her parents had to get her into public school. And when I met her in 1971, she had already sued the Board of Education to get her teaching license. And it was a huge influence on me. And that influence is something that many people just from Camp Jened experienced and led us to be getting involved in disability rights.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. You wrote on Twitter that she was a mentor and friend. Can you just talk about what she was like as a person?

LEBRECHT: (Laughter) Oh, my gosh. I mean, Judy seemed to care about everybody. She just had just, like, this real huge open heart, except if you were getting in her way. And then, you know, she was absolutely determined and motivated. If people have a chance to see our film, "Crip Camp," you know, you see her talking to somebody from the H.E.W. Department - Health, Education and Welfare - and you could hear her voice cracking.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CRIP CAMP")

HEUMANN: We will no longer allow the government to oppress disabled individuals. We want the law enforced. We will accept no more discussion of segregation. And I would appreciate it if you would stop shaking your head in agreement when I don't think you understand what we are talking about.

LEBRECHT: You know, perhaps that is one of the most iconic moments in disability rights. I get shivers every time I see it.

SHAPIRO: She once told my colleague, Joe Shapiro - and I'm going to paraphrase - that the disability is not a tragedy. Being in a wheelchair is not a tragedy. It only becomes tragedy when society does not allow disabled people access and opportunities. When she started delivering that message, how revolutionary was it?

LEBRECHT: I can only speak to you as someone who was 15 when he first met Judy in 1971. It was mind opening to me. I somehow had been taught to be ashamed about my disability for the fact that I couldn't walk and used a wheelchair. My body didn't look like "everybody else's," quote-unquote. And to learn that I should have pride in who I am really helped me. Judy really was my mentor. She really set the course of my life in regards to how I regarded myself as someone with a disability and that I felt like I could make a difference because Judy had made a difference. I just wouldn't be who I am without her.

SHAPIRO: That's Jim Lebrecht, filmmaker and disabled civil rights activist, remembering his friend and mentor, Judith Heumann, who died on Saturday at the age of 75. Thank you so much.

LEBRECHT: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.