Host: A quadriplegic since childhood, Judith “Judy” Heumann’s [HUMANS] life’s work began when she was denied a teaching license for using a wheelchair.
She was responsible for bringing the first ever disability civil rights case to federal court, and would later become known as the “Mother of the Disability Rights Movement”.
Judy came to StoryCorps in 2020 with her friend and fellow teacher, April Coughlin [COG-lin].
Judy Heumann (JH) and April Coughlin (AC)
JH: The first time that I really remember someone making me feel different was when I was about eight years old. My friend and I were going to the candy store. She was pushing my wheelchair, and this young boy came over to me and said, ‘Are you sick?’
I wished the ground would open and swallow me up. It made me realize that people saw me differently than I saw myself.
AC: What made you want to become a teacher?
JH: At that point in New York City, we had to take three exams. I passed my written exam, I passed my oral exam, but I failed my medical exam. The doctor asked me how I went to the bathroom, and if I could show her. I don’t know where this answer came from, but I said, well I could assure her that I knew how to do it and that if it was required of other teachers to show their children how to go to the bathroom, I’d be able to do that also.
She said I had to come back for another medical exam. So when I went back, I went in and she asked me where my crutches and braces were, and I told her I didn’t bring them. And I saw her write down ‘insubordinate.’
So when I got the denial a few months later, it was obviously not a surprise, but my father and mother had raised us that ‘don’t take no for an answer’.
I was able to get attorneys. We went to court and the judge basically told the board of Ed to give me another medical exam. And they did and it took like 10 minutes, and I got my license.
Who knew whether I was going to be a good teacher or not? Nobody really knows that until you’re in the classroom. But what would I say? How would I feel, if I didn’t try?
AC: I’ve been a wheelchair user since I was six years old, and I grew up and took history classes like anyone else, and nothing about people with disabilities or the disability rights movement. And it just absolutely blew my mind that you had fought the Board of Ed. and won, because at that point I had been teaching for six years and I had absolutely no idea that you had paved that way for me.
And I couldn’t wait to meet you someday because I wanted to be able to tell you that. I just appreciate everything that you’ve done.